A Hopewell Valley Central High School senior drew the final strokes on her yearlong art project: A comic book on invasive species that she created to educate young naturalists at The Watershed Institute.
Sophia Noto created the 18-page comic book to qualify for her Girl Scout’s Gold Award, the organization’s highest award for completing a project that offers lasting solutions for their community.
“I’m really passionate about the environment and I want to help spread awareness. Invasive species are one of the pressing issues that we face,” said Sophia, 17. “If we want to make progress with our planet, we need to keep educating the younger generations.”
An invasive species can be any kind of living organism – a plant, insect, fish, fungus, or bacteria – that is not native to an ecosystem and causes harm to the new habitat. Invasive plants are detrimental to the environment, grow and reproduce quickly, and spread aggressively. They crowd out native species and consume precious water and other resources. Raising awareness is timely given the current National Invasive Species Awareness Week, which runs from Feb. 28- March 4.
Sophia said she chose a comic book format because “I wanted it to be really engaging. The standard textbook style can be hard to learn from – they are dense and are not really as inviting. Comic books are popular with kids and I thought they would be a good medium for conveying the information.”
She initiated her project last year as the spotted lanternfly populations exploded and created significant concern across the region. She worked with one of the school district’s STEM coordinators and her high school art teacher to shape her project.
With a mix of humor and gravitas, her comic book provides background on the lanternfly and four other invasive species — hydrilla, multiflora rose, garlic mustard and Japanese honeysuckle. Sophia chose those invasive species because she wanted to illustrate the problems and possible solutions that children could tackle.
The Gold Award asks girls to research a topic they care about and connect with experts, creating a resource with measurable impact. After exploring Sophia’s comic, viewers are asked to complete a survey for public feedback.
Sophia “took the global problem of invasive species and loss of biodiversity and brought it to a local level where people can do something about it,” said Pat Heaney, Assistant Director of Education at the Watershed.
As part of the project’s leadership criteria, she managed a team of seven boys and girls, some of who were friends and others who were acquaintances or new connections. Her project, which took roughly 150 hours, eclipsed the required 80 hours for a Gold Award.
The comic book will reside on the Watershed’s website and eventually will be printed into a hard-copy book. These will be future resources for visiting schoolchildren, campers, and stewardship volunteers at the 950-acre Watershed Reserve.
Sophia said she visited the Watershed on school field trips and with her family.
“The Watershed is such an integral part of the Hopewell community. It has always been at the forefront of my mind when I think of the environment and I’ve visited there since elementary school,” she said. “My intention is that the comic book is an asset owned by the Watershed and, if allowed, can be shared with other environmental groups.”
As an 8th grader, Sophia created a butterfly coloring book as part of her Girl Scouts Silver Award Project. She shared it with attendees at the Watershed’s annual Butterfly Festival in 2018. Her coloring book is still used by the Watershed’s education team and was adapted for last year’s festival t-shirt.
Her father, Tom Noto, said the comic book “project is all her” from its inception to executing the storyboard and design, and leading the team to sketch, draw and color the final project using digital illustration software. He said she also received great guidance from experts at her school and at the Watershed.
She also will be honored with a 2022 Mercer County Young Women of Achievement Award at a ceremony in May, with her effort on the comic book contributing to her award.
As she ponders her next step, Sophia has applied to a number of highly regarded art schools. She is considering her choices on where she will attend to achieve her goal of majoring in Graphic Design.