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Stark News Details

Natural Collaboration: Dr. Penny Bernstein

Posted Jun. 5, 2012

Natural Collaboration: Dr. Penny Bernstein

In loving memory of Dr. Penny Bernstein
March 30, 1947 - July 15, 2012

Campus Memorial Service
Friday, Sept. 28, 2012 at 3 p.m.
Campus Pond Gazebo

Her legacy will live on in the hearts of Kent State University at Stark students, faculty and staff, and her monumental contributions to the campus and community will not be forgotten. The vital work of the Herbert W. Hoover Initiative will continue, as a tribute to her life.

Natural Collaboration

Puzzles intrigue Penny Bernstein. Whether they are presented in a colorful box, in the natural world or as part of her work, her first inclination is to look carefully for patterns that lead to a solution. A field biologist and an associate professor of biological sciences at Kent State University at Stark, Bernstein was asked to play a key role in what has evolved into an innovative consortium dedicated to saving Stark County’s watersheds. But, before the Herbert W. Hoover Initiative in Environmental Media could move forward to achieve its purposes, someone needed to put the pieces in the right place.

“When I learned about the idea for the Hoover Initiative more than four years ago, I could see what it was – a framework with great potential to spur environmental change, but with lots of ideas, goals and expectations that had to be placed in the proper order,” she says.

Initially, she admits she wasn’t sure who would embrace the concept of environmental media. However, she quickly discovered that many students were already using media to document ecology issues. They just didn’t know what to do with their photos and videos. The “Hoover Initiative” – funded by a grant from the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation – would become an outlet for them, as well as an opportunity to voice their concerns.  

She notes, “With the rise of environmental activism among students again, I knew this project would fill a need for area students and help them work in very tangible ways toward a common goal – which is to preserve and protect our watersheds.”

When Bernstein accepted the position as coordinator of the Hoover Initiative, one of her biggest expectations – and subsequent challenges – was to build a partnership between many groups that, on the surface, seemed disparate. Yet, the idea of an interdisciplinary effort excited her, and since 2008, she has been the driving catalyst behind this environmental consortium, forging bonds between individuals, businesses, corporations, nonprofits, government departments, county agencies, K-12 schools and groups of faculty members and students at Stark County’s five colleges and universities. Currently, 14 organizations are involved, with more joining every year.    

Thanks to funding from the Western Reserve Conservation and Resource Development Council, the Hoover Initiative now has two environmental stewardship liaisons that connect faculty, students and community partners. Bernstein says they play an important part in keeping everyone connected and overseeing smaller projects that students and partners work on together.  

Tina Biasella, director of external affairs at Kent State Stark, describes Bernstein as a person of petite stature who makes big waves. As a result of her efforts to bring people together, every college and university in Stark County is collaborating to address local issues related to the environment.   

“Efforts to improve the environment in general and our watersheds in particular are more widespread than we ever dreamed possible,” Biasella says. “However, few recognize all that Dr. Bernstein has done. She is so humble. Her work speaks for itself and demonstrates our strong commitment to making the community a better place to live, work and play.”  

A number of opportunities are underway for the Hoover Initiative, including a new grant for water sampling in select locations throughout Stark County. As part of this project, Dr. Bernstein’s vision is to create a database of statistics and content (images, videos, papers, etc.) that students across the consortium can update regularly. Water sampling began in spring 2012.

Upcoming events and plans include:
  • A symposium with Chris Palmer, professor of film and media arts, distinguished film producer in residence and director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University. Palmer will offer a public talk, as well as a workshop for students, in October.
  • A documentary about the connection between water and health in Stark County. Slated to be filmed through the University of Miami’s (Florida) Arnold Center for Confluent Media Studies, which is also part of the Hoover Initiative, the effort will include contributions from several pioneers in the field of water pollution.
  • Use of an environmental classroom located at the Hoover Historical Center, across from Walsh University. Although Walsh owns the classroom, all consortium members will have access to the facility.
  • An environmental film contest, as part of the 2012 Canton Film Festival this October, as well as other photo and video contests sponsored by Kent State Stark’s Fine Arts Department.

Ironically, Bernstein says the program’s long-term sustainability may be the Hoover Initiative’s biggest challenge going forward. The program appeals to students and is making major strides in meeting its objectives, but several hurdles remain.   

“Students come to college expecting to be challenged, but they also want to leave with a degree,” Bernstein says. “With every project the Hoover Initiative starts, we must ask the question, ‘How will this fit into students’ graduation requirements?’ To keep this wonderful effort alive, we must continue to find ways to make it work within the academic system.”

That’s another puzzle Bernstein is currently tackling. Students throughout Stark County who are passionate about clean water are cheering her on.

Timeline of Watershed Initiatives

With the support of the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation, Dr. Penny Bernstein and an impassioned team of faculty members and students from Kent State Stark, Malone University, Walsh University, Stark State College and University of Mount Union have made significant strides in raising awareness about threats to Stark County’s watersheds while helping to protect and improve their condition.

The Hoover Initiative in Environmental Media, an alliance between Kent State Stark and the University of Miami’s (Florida) Arnold Center for Confluent Media Studies, is established. The partnership is intended to educate Stark County citizens and businesses on real-world solutions that will positively affect environmental change, promote clean-energy resources and provide new jobs – ultimately leading to increased economic impact in our region.

Kent State Stark and the University of Miami receive a joint grant from the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation totaling $400,000.


  • The first multi-edition, guest editorial series in The Repository features three columns on the Nimishillen Creek Watershed. The articles introduce issues facing the watershed, facts about its health properties, how it affects each of us, and what is and can be done to clean and prevent further contamination.
  • is developed as an online communication tool to help students, faculty and the local community investigate and learn about watersheds, how they interact with them and how those interactions could be improved and enhanced.


  • Kent State Stark offers the first Environmental Media course, incorporating students’ filmmaking abilities with an environmental focus on the Nimishillen Creek Watershed. Four documentaries are produced and showcased at the Canton Film Festival. The course is now offered each spring.
  • Members of the Environmental Media course start a student organization called TASK (Take Action, Spread Knowledge). The group is instrumental in coordinating public speaking events and rallies for environmental causes, in addition to traveling to Columbus, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., to unite with others who have similar stances.
  • The Corporate University at Kent State Stark conducts a survey on behalf of the Hoover Initiative to explore and raise public awareness of our region’s water resources. Data from 455 respondents is collected and evaluated. 

The momentum continues:

  • The Herbert W. Hoover Foundation provides Kent State Stark with a $300,000 grant designated for clean water initiatives. The grant allows the Hoover Initiative in Environmental Media to sample water in Stark County on an ongoing basis to supplement Ohio EPA testing. Called Making the Invisible Visible, this project provides hands-on learning for all five Stark County colleges and universities, as well as useful information for county agencies and the public.
  • The Hoover Initiative in Environmental Media presents a special lecture by internationally known ecologist, cancer survivor and author Sandra Steingraber in March. The lecture focuses on the direct relationship between cancer and environmental toxins.
  • Dr. Edith Widder, Ph.D., a deep-sea explorer and founder of Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA), addresses students from Stark County colleges and universities as they embark on sampling of Stark County water supplies.

Learn more about the Herbert W. Hoover Initiative in Environmental Media at