From Sewers to Schools: A Profile of Stephen McClellan

A profile of Mr. McClellan, and how his variety of careers has influenced the lessons he passes on to his students.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Geoffrey Huang

Environmental Science teacher Stephen McClellan has taught at Stuyvesant for roughly 17 years. Before becoming a teacher, McClellan worked in a variety of industries, utilizing his environmental science education to aid in developing environmentally friendly practices and conservation efforts across the United States. 

McClellan’s interest in environmental science originates from his childhood. He grew up near Chambers Works, a massive DuPont factory that is now a hazardous waste site. DuPont is a large multinational chemical production company known for creating materials such as teflon, a substance used for non-stick cooking ware. DuPont has since faced charges for poisoning waterways with C8, a chemical in Teflon manufacturing, after studies were conducted on C8’s dangerous implications. C8 has been linked to six different human diseases, including cancer. “I was very interested in the effects that living next to large-scale chemical factories have on children,” McClellan said. “It influenced me to study industrial hygiene, which is basically the study of OSHA: Occupational Safety and Health [Administration].”

His interest in environmental science was further nurtured by his high school’s advanced science programs. “I studied a lot of chemistry in high school. [...] We had three years of chemistry and independent study chemistry—we did our own project,” McClellan said. “I [got] to hang out with my friend and sample water and analyze it.”

Inspired by his childhood experiences near Chamber Works, McClellan began studying industrial hygiene, which focuses on assessing and correcting environmental problems impacting the health of employees in the workplace. Soon after he obtained his degree, he came across numerous job opportunities. McClellan recalled that he needed large-scale wisdom teeth surgery at the time, motivating him to apply for a job that provided dental insurance. He found a job in Vail, Colorado—where he was residing—that he was qualified for and fulfilled his needs. “I basically looked for a job and lo and behold, wastewater treatment facility operator, which weirdly again, I also studied water treatment, wastewater treatment, and solid waste management,” McClellan said.

McClellan’s extensive knowledge and experience in the environmental science field allowed him to hop from one niche job to the next, exploring the specialized sectors of the field that interested him whenever the opportunity arose. When McClellan lived in California, he worked in geotechnical engineering, maintaining the safety of cell phone tower constructions. Because California is so seismically active, infrastructure, such as the roads surrounding the towers, needs to be constantly maintained. McClellan said, “It seems like we’ll put in a cellphone tower, we’ll be done in a couple of months. It’s not like that at all. You’re there for quite a long time overseeing these jobs.” McClellan recalled how the job had him regularly commuting to multiple different locations in California: “I would basically commute on my skateboard with BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and then walk to work, get my truck, but then I had a job all over; I can be in Dublin, I can be in Livermore, I can be in Santa Cruz, I could be anywhere, and we did mostly geotechnical engineering stuff,” he said. From there, he was offered a job in Milpitas to locate and patch up methane leaks in landfills. His environmental science background allowed him to utilize sensitive equipment to detect the presence of pollutants in water and pinpoint methane leaks by smell, a skill his colleagues specializing in geology or engineering did not have. 

After living in San Francisco for a while, McClellan heard that the New York City Teaching Fellows needed science teachers and decided to move to New York City. He was inspired to become a teacher through his experience as a truck driver in California, where he was responsible for transporting repurposed items for schools to use as classroom tools. There, he saw teachers working on sustainability projects with organic produce. McClellan said, “I got to see all these cool sustainable projects all over Marin County, where the teachers there were just growing organic food, and they would serve lunches every day, where it was actually homegrown kale and homegrown beans.” After moving to New York in 2004, he taught in the Bronx for two years before starting his job at Stuyvesant in 2006. McClellan wasn’t always an AP Environmental Science teacher, though. “Geology, meteorology, oceanography [...] environmental studies ran for years and years [as] an elective, and then eventually, that morphed into AP Environmental Science for me [...] and I did [biology] for years and years, which was fun because every day, every period was something new and different,” McClellan explained.

Currently, McClellan is cultivating infrastructure and resources in Stuyvesant to increase access to environmental science education. He hopes to have a lab specifically dedicated to environmental science next year by remodeling old photography labs that are no longer in use. He says he was inspired to advocate for a designated environmental science lab due to previous issues competing with other science courses for space. “The environmental science classes are mixed in with the Biology lab, and it’s sometimes difficult to schedule things,” McClellan said. In addition to convenience, he hopes to add more specific environmental science courses with the creation of the new lab. McClellan said, “This will make it a lot easier for our department because hopefully even geology, oceanic oceanography, you know, all the geoscience classes can be down there. It’s gonna be nice for everyone in this department to have a new space to do more lab hands-on activities.” 

Furthermore, McClellan is also involved in the current construction of a Stuyvesant hydroponics lab, working alongside biology teacher Marissa Maggio. Hydroponics is a gardening technique that grows plants in nutrient-dense water as opposed to soil, allowing them to grow indoors within a small space while still producing high yields. Their ultimate goal is to have the produce grown from the hydroponics lab replace the cafeteria school lunch so students have access to fresh fruit and vegetables. This self-sustaining system of eating food grown on-site minimizes large-scale agriculture and the carbon footprint from shipping. 

 Lastly, McClellan is in the process of reviving his coral and fish tanks, which suffered tremendously during the pandemic. When the building was closed, he was unable to come in and maintain the tank conditions. McClellan explained, “When things chemically changed, and the pH probably plummeted, we couldn’t add buffers; it’s very much an artificial ecosystem that requires lots and lots of constant tweaking to keep it functioning.” The problem worsened when the Coral Reef Club, a team of students he had previously been working with to take care of the tanks, disbanded during the pandemic. However, veteran members of the club, along with new members, have begun coming together to work on the tanks once more. “We’re rebuilding, and we have a new reef club. [...] A few other reef club people have risen from the ashes of the former reef club, actually new kids.” With the help of the new Coral Reef Club, McClellan is excited to see the tanks be revived.

From the pungent stench of landfills in California to the hustle and bustle of New York City schools, McClellan has seen it all, riding the wave of whatever opportunity presents itself. His diverse career in environmental science is rooted in his personal experiences with the damaging effects of environmental degradation. Now in his 18th year at Stuyvesant, McClellan continues to share his passion with students and works on projects to further promote environmental science.