illustration of student with computer and oil well

Green teams: Students awarded for documentaries on environmental threats

September 6, 2022


Spider junior Mia Lazar says she’s been passionate about protecting the environment since her high school days. 

Lazar teamed up with Stanford students Claire Morton and Eleanor Stalcup to create a documentary titled “Mapping Oil Wells Near Homes in California,” which won second place in a national contest created by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA’s Environmental Justice Video Challenge for Students calls for videos demonstrating innovative approaches to environmental justice, in collaboration with the community.

Lazar and the other two students worked with VISION, a coalition of eight California environmental organizations, to create a digital mapping tool that shows the location of oil wells across California in relation to neighborhoods throughout the state.

The documentary explores the possible health risks for Californians living near oil and gas wells. The students also created an interactive map to show residents the locations of the wells across the state.

“Oil wells are disproportionately located near low-income, Black, and Hispanic communities,” Lazar said. “Residents may not even be aware of how close they are to their homes, workplaces, schools, and hospitals.”

The team shared a $12,000 prize. Lazar, a Richmond Scholar who studies math and art, says her experience in her digital humanities courses taught her how to use her artistic vision to create change.

“I learned about how dangerous it is when communities don’t have easy access to data that affects their health,” she said. “I hope that this documentary will help Californians be aware of how to find this important information.” 

Megan Salters and McKenna Dunbar

Another team of Spiders received an honorable mention from the EPA for their documentary, “Looking Deep into Landfills: A Story of Environmental Injustice.” Seniors McKenna Dunbar and Megan Salters worked with the Concerned Citizens of Charles City County to conduct a survey and determine how the residents of Charles City County in Virginia feel about the location of a landfill in their community.

In the survey, residents reported concerns about toxic substances from the landfill leaching into the well water in the area among other concerns. Dunbar and Salters earned a $1,000 prize for their work on the documentary. 

The next phase of the contest, which rolls out this fall, involves the teams taking action. They will work with the communities they featured to develop a strategy to drive community engagement and advocate for change. 

Mary Finley-Brook, associate professor of geography and the environment, advised Dunbar and Salters on their documentary. She says this project is just one of many ways students are learning to make a difference in the environment. 

“Specifically in this case, students learn how to address difficult challenges and work to end injustice,” Finley-Brook said. “They learn education and advocacy, so we are not just describing problems, but also helping to solve them.”