U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan made a visit to the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Sciences Thursday, allowing students to put their skills and accomplishments on display, and offering local conservation nonprofits that work closely with the county-run school some face time with the congressman.
It was Runyan’s first visit to the Manahawkin science- and math-oriented high school, which is part of the Ocean County Vocational Technical School District and gives more than 200 bright students the chance to take college-level science courses, conduct field research and run an endangered species conservation program while getting their high school degrees.
After a trio of seniors guided Runyan through classrooms and labs filled with tanks of terrapins and shared details of their projects and research, the lawmaker spoke to a group of students in the school cafeteria and answered questions. Their work is important, he said, adding that he hoped many of them would stick with science as they entered careers.
Runyan said he's working on the federal level to advance laws that will balance pressing environmental concerns with economic needs, but that good policy needs strong data to back it up.
“As a legislator, I can’t argue with solid numbers, and I think sometimes we don’t have enough good science,” he said. “We have to convince people like you to help us to protect what we have for future generations.”
Rick Bushnell is president of ReClam the Bay, a shellfish restoration nonprofit that collaborates with M.A.T.E.S. students and organized Runyan’s visit to the school. He said he was glad the congressman got a chance to see firsthand the collaboration between bright kids and environmental researchers the school fosters.
“When he’s in Washington and people are talking about funding education, he can say ‘We need more facilities like this,’” Bushnell said.
The visit was great for the students, too, said Gef Flimlin, a Rutgers Marine Extension Agent who works closely with ReClam. “It’s really important for them to understand the public process, and not be afraid to call up their representative’s office,” he said.
M.A.T.E.S. principal Alison Carroll said her students definitely have the confidence to speak up. “They like to challenge,” she said. And they took the opportunity while they had Runyan in their sights. During the Q&A, the teens peppered him with questions that ranged from his position on the capital gains tax to whether he agreed with his presidential pick Mitt Romney on defunding the EPA.
Seniors James Geddis and Carrie DePasquale, who helped guide Runyan through classrooms and labs filled with tanks of terrapins, said it was gratifying to meet a local lawmaker who could shape policy on the environmental issues they and their classmates tackle daily.
“We have to get the people who run everything onboard,” said DePasquale, 17, of Jackson.
Geddis, 18, and also of Jackson, said it was a great time to be a student at the school, because local environmental efforts have been increasingly in the spotlight since Gov. Chris Christie unveiled his 10-point plan for restoring Barnegat Bay.
“It’s nice to see that change happen while we were here,” he said.
Still, said DePasquale, “our work is never done.”