Sol Geisso in the Virgin Islands

Sol Giesso in the U.S. Virgin Islands

Educating and Empowering to Fight Climate Change

It’s easy to get discouraged these days by news of climate change and the environment. But Sol Giesso ’23, MS ’24, isn’t one to take the easy route.

In fact, after finishing her bachelor’s degree in environmental and sustainability studies a semester early, she immediately—and literally—dove into coursework for a master’s in community climate adaptation. Giesso spent C- and D-Terms doing fieldwork for her Graduate Qualifying Project (GQP) in the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

While she was there, she took Open Water Scientific Diving at the University of the Virgin Islands and earned her scuba certificate, which she hopes to use as a volunteer on coral restoration projects in the future. “Plus, I love seeing the sea turtles and squid and rays,” she says. 

A native of Argentina, Giesso grew up in Buenos Aires until she was 12, when her family moved to Miami. “In Miami it clicked for me that I wanted to do something having to do with the environment,” she says, noting that she was fascinated by the natural world in her new home. “The ocean is such a big part of the landscape there, and seeing sea turtles and mangrove restoration and seagrass made me really interested in ecology.”

Whenever I have a final project, I make it something related to environmental education so that I get to build on the stuff that I really care about.

The more enamored she became by the South Florida environment, the more she understood how precarious it was. The 2017 hurricane season snapped this into focus for Giesso, who was 15 when Hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through the Caribbean just two weeks apart. 

“I remember how clear the ocean was after. Usually, it looks dark blue due to the seagrass and algae and sea life. But the water looked dead because the marine life had been washed ashore,” she says. “We were not allowed to go into the water because the sewage plant leaked due to the hurricane. It really made me think about the far-reaching consequences of natural disasters.”

She later took an environmental science class and loved the way her teacher incorporated hands-on projects into the coursework. When Giesso began looking at colleges, she was drawn to WPI’s focus on project-based learning

Here her interest in ecology has blossomed into a passion for environmental education. She hasn’t been deterred, though, by the fact that WPI doesn’t have a formal program in the field. “I’ve always tried to channel it through my other classes. Whenever I have a final project, I make it something related to environmental education so that I get to build on the stuff that I really care about,” she says. 

For the final project for her Sustainable Cities class, for example, Giesso wrote and illustrated a children’s book The Journey of Trash, which chronicles the path of a plastic toy that gets tossed in the garbage. And during her junior year, she designed an independent study on environmental education with Robert Traver, a (now retired) teaching professor in the Department of Integrative and Global Studies

Ready for Challenge

But Giesso isn’t only passionate about environmental education. She also likes a challenge. So when Stephen McCauley, co-director of the Global Lab, encouraged her to apply to Projects for Peace—a not-for-credit program that awards students $10,000 to create and execute a project that promotes peace and understanding anywhere in the world—Giesso was all in.

Her project, “Empowering Immigrant Voices in the Fight for the Environment,” was one of 100 winning proposals from undergraduates across the United States in 2023. She designed it to address both “the global environmental crisis and the need for diverse individuals to solve it,” drawing heavily on her personal experiences as an immigrant in Miami. 

“Those kinds of classes aren’t usually offered in public schools in South Florida, so if you have an interest in the environment, it’s usually treated as a volunteering opportunity rather than a possible career path,” she says. 

Giesso also remembered struggling with the college application process, which is very different in the U.S. than in Argentina. “My parents didn’t know anything about how to apply to college here. There are so many expectations in terms of extracurriculars and writing good essays,” she says. “With my Project for Peace, I wanted to help students make that jump from something they’re interested in to something they have a good background in, to help when they’re applying to college.”

Eight high school students from the Miami area participated in Giesso’s program last summer. It was, essentially, a crash course for teens considering a career in environmental issues. Giesso led field trips to natural settings around South Florida and the group met with academics and activists working on a range of issues, from beach cleanup to sustainable building materials. For the final assignment, each student designed a small-scale project that they could implement at their school or in their neighborhood, with funding from Giesso’s Project for Peace award.

“I modeled it on an IQP proposal but scaled it down for high school students,” she says. “They each came up with a goal and objectives and then described what the steps would be and the methods they would use. They loved brainstorming what they would need to do to make it happen.”

Educating and empowering others is, in fact, what keeps Giesso from getting overwhelmed and disheartened about climate change.

“I’m trying to give students the tools they’ll need to make changes,” she says. “It’s on a small scale, but it’s something I can do. And little by little I do my best to support bigger efforts.”

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