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Best of the Week 2019-2020: Teaching to the Future


Last Friday, students in Mrs. Anne Marie Lavelle's IB Chemistry HL, Honors Environmental Science and Honors Chemistry classes and Mrs. Erin Schilf's Honors Chemistry classes welcomed Ken Ilgunas to St. Edward High School to speak about environmentalism, climate change and his journey hitchhiking along the Keystone XL pipeline. Ken, who grew up in Wheatfield, NY, explained his struggle to stay motivated in high school until his intellectual awakening in college when he decided to pursue journalism. After graduation, however, Ken did not find any jobs in journalism, and with college tacking on a lot of financial debt, he moved to Alaska where he took up menial labor jobs that offered free room and board so that he could pay off his student loans. To harness his longing for adventure, Ken hitchhiked 5,500 miles across the continent, canoeing across Ontario, working on a trail crew in Mississippi, and then heading back to Alaska to work as a backcountry ranger.

Missing school and wanting to redo college in a more economical way, Ken attended Duke University's graduate program but secretly lived in his 1994 Econoline van for two years to simultaneously boost his education while staying out of debt. "Living in a van was my grand social experiment. I wanted to see if I could, in an age of rampant consumerism and fiscal irresponsibility, afford the unaffordable: an education," says Ken. After writing his first book, "Walden on Wheels," released in May 2013, Ken wanted to discover a trail that had never been conquered before. At 28 years old, While washing dishes at an arctic labor camp in Deadhorse, Alaska, Ken had heard about the large protests in Washington, D.C. about the Keystone XL pipeline and the concern of its affects on climate change. "At the time, I was beginning to question the direction of my life," says Ken. "I believe the soul must be caged before it can be set free - moments of giving up are when the crazy ideas full of purpose and meaning happen."

Wanting to acquire his own voice over this national issue, Ken decided to hitchhike along the Keystone XL pipeline but wanted to make his journey bigger than himself. Ken documented his adventure through blog posts, writing articles for local magazines and taking photos and videos capturing the things he saw along the way and to raise awareness of this environmental issue. Starting in Denver, Colorado, Ken walked 1,500 miles to Alberta tar sands, a man-made depository for bitumen and oil where the Keystone XL pipeline begins. "Seeing the pipeline draw oil from this place, expanding it and contributing to climate change by burning more fossil fuels, this pit was the worst human-made environmental disaster I'd ever seen," says Ken. As he headed south on his 1,700-mile hike toward the Texas Gulf Coast, Ken spent four and a half months crossing the Great Plains and following the Keystone XL pipeline as closely as possible. While facing many trials and challenges along the way, Ken noted that this gave him the perfect opportunity to meet strangers, talk to locals who could be affected by the Keystone XL pipeline, and hear their views on climate change and environmental issues. "My journey was a small way of creating conversation and raising awareness," says Ken. "It was about figuring out what our role as individuals should be in confronting something so big and so out of our hands and looking at our country from a new perspective."

"I was excited to have Ken speak at St. Ed's because we often only see science as 'science' and forget that there are many other aspects of life that it touches. I knew our students would be engaged because who wouldn't want to 'Trespass Across America?'" says Mrs. Lavelle. "Science and theology actually played a part in this experience. Our senior year Theology course focuses on social issues so Ken's presentation hit on some future curricula that our students will learn."

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