Competitive school science fairs are a motif in the grade school education story. Often requiring a significant investment on the part of parents, the circumstances in which students must produce a contending project can create more stress than interest for the sciences and environmental studies. When the supposed purpose of these projects is to stoke young people’s fire for science and prepare them to be active participants in addressing present and future environmental issues, how can we update the traditional science project structure to better educate our future stewards?
Essential to the current school science project model are in-classroom support from teachers and mentors and the empowerment of children and young adults with the knowledge that their impact on our eco-infrastructures is real and immediate. Administering a science project that addresses pressing environmental issues and identification of their challenges presents a hands-on stake in sustainability for students, inspiring problem-solving and an authentic picture of science’s role in it.
This past June, I had the opportunity to judge on a panel for the Green Your School Fund, a science competition that primes for just that kind of innovation. Calling upon schools nationwide to come up with innovative projects that will help make their school and community more sustainable, TerraCycle brand partner Tom’s of Maine teamed up with Donors Choose to match all public cash donations during the process of each project, which each called for a list of resources and equipment ranging from a tablet for classroom use, plankton nets and compost bins to camcorders, light meters and more.
The following schools are among the 10 finalists up for public vote through October, from which winners will be named to receive a cash prize allocation to further pursue and expand their science project.
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"How would you like to help us make our favorite summer swimming lake safe to swim in?" was a challenge posed at Pinewood Elementary in Jenison, Mich. Literally and figuratively “testing the waters,” this is a science project that gives young people an opportunity to make a difference in the community in which they live, and use multiple learning techniques including research, logical deduction, data collection and iterative learning.
Another Michigan elementary school aims to educate its community on the effect of plastic pollution on water systems by quantifying exactly how far it has penetrated local rivers and lakes. Sport fishing is a significant revenue stream in the area and people eat the fish caught out of the local watershed, which is potentially full of microplastics. The elementary school group has been working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency, The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and the NE Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative to answer the question, "Could we be eating our own plastic waste?"
Meanwhile, a school in Memphis, Tenn. wants to increase the efficiency of time spent by its group of student energy auditors called the Green Team. So far, the Green Team has spent several hours this year doing an initial energy audit of all of the rooms in the school. This consisted of the students observing what they saw, taking the lighting levels, temperature, humidity, and giving recommendations on how to make the room more energy efficient, giving them a sense of authority and immersing them in the math and science of energy efficiency.
Like “real-life” science and environmental efforts, experiments and tests on the scholastic level require resources such as equipment and funding. Programs that work this realistic challenge into the science project structure do students, teachers and future generations the added justice of equipping them with an understanding of the economics of sustainability.
The schools and teachers committed to providing students with an innovative, useful immersion of concepts and methods that allow them to seek out and solve sustainability problems at a young age are often doing so with limited resources, demonstrating their own dedication to problem solving. Now more than ever, environmental science education is an integral part of planning for a more sustainable future, and school science projects need not be a waste of time (and materials!), but a touchstone for future stewards in making the world a greener place.