5 Creative Approaches to Science and Sustainability

Earth Month (aka April) is ending, but we’re staying inspired with these science and sustainability success stories from across the Smithsonian

As a month full of green celebrations wraps up, we’re already looking for ways to keep that Earth Day energy going all year long!  

We’re always inspired by how scientists can use everything from innovative maps to artistic masterpieces to better understand our planet and how it’s changing. There are plenty of ways you can explore the world around you too, whether you volunteer for environmental research projects or seek out other opportunities to make sustainable change in your community.  

Our April roundup of science and success stories from across the Smithsonian has some inspiration and ideas to get you started: 

1. Centuries-old Indian paintings can provide clues about adapting to climate change 

An artistic revolution in the city of Udaipur may also provide scientific insight into how ecosystems in India have changed over time. When a tradition-breaking king took the throne in 1700, he encouraged court artists to focus on documenting daily life and landscapes, especially when the “City of Lakes” came alive during monsoon season. These paintings were so detailed, in fact, that climate scientists can use the intricate recreations of ancient dams, artificial lakes, and other water infrastructure to explore how modern-day citizens of the arid region can manage their increasingly unpredictable resources. You can learn more about this collaboration of art and science on the “Monsoon Mood” episode of the Smithsonian Sidedoor podcast, then admire the artwork in-person at the Smithsonian Asian Art Museum’s “A Splendid Land: Paintings from Royal Udaipur” exhibit. 

Colorful boats filled with people set sail on a lake surrounded by forested hills. In the distance, a magnificent white palace rises against swirling clouds.
Intricate paintings like "Sunrise in Udaipur" aren't just beautiful to behold – they may also provide insight into India's past climates so modern-day scientists can study how conditions are changing over time. National Museum of Asian Art

2. Communities help collect data on the Chesapeake Bay Watershed 

The Chesapeake Bay is one of the largest estuaries in the world, which can make it difficult to address threats to ecosystems across its vast watershed. Remote sensing technology, like satellites, can help scientists see the big picture, but they need to “train” the tools to collect accurate and comprehensive data. Now, thanks to a new participatory program from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, City College of New York, and NASA, anyone can help monitor the health of the Bay with no prior scientific knowledge – just some virtual or in-person training and the free HydroColor smartphone app. Citizens of the Bay can join the Chesapeake Water Watch team here. 

Two masked people look at a computer screen in a scientific lab.
Research projects often recruit volunteer "community scientists" to help collect or process data. Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

3. Immersive maps spark wonder and offer hope 

Museum exhibits can’t use every item in their collections, especially when they’re as big as the National Museum of Natural History. Curators are increasingly turning to futuristic technologies to better tell stories about the past. By using updated versions of traditional tools for understanding our natural world – like transforming historical maps into interactive GIS-powered displays – museums can share knowledge more effectively, both within their walls and through online platforms. The new “Our Places: Connecting People and Nature” exhibit is already demonstrating the power of this approach, offering visitors opportunities to interact with the displays in-person or share their experiences with the environment via virtual Storymap anytime. 

A group of children and teachers look up in awe at a seemingly floating, glowing reproduction of Earth.
Museum exhibits are increasingly technologically advanced and interactive to inspire visitors to be even more curious about the world around them. NOAA

4. The history of environmental justice illuminates solutions for the future 

When communities are threatened by unsafe or unjust conditions, people throughout history have come together to make their voices heard and find solutions. The Anacostia Community Museum’s new Center for Environmental Justice aims to explore lessons from the past so those keeping up the fight for a healthy and equitable world can be even more effective. The next generation of advocates, like the inaugural cohort of their Environmental Justice Academy, will learn from established changemakers working to improve their neighborhoods along the Anacostia River in Washington DC. You can get a glimpse of what they’re up to in the upcoming “To Live and Breathe: Women and Environmental Justice in Washington, D.C.” exhibit. 

A Black woman wearing a yellow Grocery Walk 2017 t-shirt brandishes a carrot in the air, surrounded by a crowd of other protesters.
Environmental justice can cover many topics – like access to healthy food, which inspired the 2017 Grocery Walk that drew attention to the lack of healthy food options available in historically Black neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. Brian Oh, courtesy of DC Greens

5. Scientists and environmentalists showcase what sustainability looks like in action 

Everyone’s journey to a more sustainable future looks different. In the Smithsonian and USA Today’s new “Sustainability in Action” guide, researchers and changemakers share their inspiring stories of working towards positive progress for our planet. From reflecting on your connection to the environment to exploring a checklist of possible ways to green your routine, this activity book aims to help you transform every day into Earth Day. If you couldn’t get your hands on a print copy, here’s the digital version, featuring exclusive online resources alongside the main stories! 

A pair of newspapers are arranged on a table next to a pencil to show off the green to blue gradient cover of the Smithsonian and USA Today's Sustainability in Action guide. The spread features a teal-tinted photo of two people extending a net to collect
In the Smithsonian's ninth collaboration with USA TODAY, "Sustainability in Action" focuses on people who are taking action in their communities and around the world to address environmental challenges that matter most to them. Funnel Design Group