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Earth Day 2011
In 1970 the first Earth Day was organized. It was an international teach-in for raising awareness of environmental issues. Since then each April several organizations take stock of how we are doing in terms of environmental issues solutions and awareness. This is an opportunity for science classes all over the world to get involved with solving local issues and learning science along the way.
There are a thousand different projects from community clean ups, to teach-ins and to green education seminars. A quick view of the Earth Day Network site can give you some amazing ideas from past projects.
Getting an Earth Day or Earth week activity organized takes some time so that is why this article is posted early. This gives you a chance to search the Earth Day site for activities in your area to join or to create one of your own. Schools have planted trees, restored habitats, built trails, cleaned up vacant lots and even made their schools more energy efficient. There are lots of ideas on the site.
The science that goes along with this is limitless. I am teaching chemistry so I will have my students focus on the lowly water bottle. We have been counting all the water bottles making it into the waste stream in our classes. We did ask the custodian for a bit of help. All we did was count and submit to the class wiki a daily total of the number of bottles we witnessed going into the trash. The custodian supplemented this amount with a general count from the trash bins we do not generally see in a day (parking lot, teacher’s lounge, and cafeteria). Our highest daily count for this school of 435 kids is 97 water bottles. If this was an average then in 188 days of school there would be over 18000 plastic water bottles thrown away each year. That is a lot of plastic and not much of that makes it into the waste stream.
Our school water is good and in a blind taste test the students and faculty could not tell the difference between the water from our water fountains and the bottled water. That led to the collaboration between school and community. Two local businesses offered to donate plastic water bottles to the school. We asked that they be BPA free. The plan for Earth Day is that each student who signs a pledge to not use the ubiquitous clear water bottles and to use the donated refillable water bottle will receive a bottle to use all year.
We had to negotiate a bit of policy as the administration wanted to make sure that the students would not bring some sort of alcohol in these new bottles. So, we asked the student council to come up with a plan. They have asked for random bottle checks throughout the day where teachers and staff randomly do the bottle sniff test. They also asked the students to bring the bottles in empty as they enter the school and fill them only at the water fountains. This is a small fix to a larger problem but it opens the door to greater learning.
The learning is in the plastics chemistry. Water bottles are made out of PET (polyethylene terephthalate). We studied the chemical structure of plastics last year and will study it this year as part of this unit. There are some interesting questions and calculations that come into play with the discussion of how much we would save in energy and even water if we eliminate 18,000 bottles from the landfill each year.
That will lead to an interesting flow chart of the life cycle of a plastic bottle. You begin with a barrel of oil and follow the conversion of that oil to plastics. There is water needed at every step of that refining process in some form even if only for cooling. Then, the plastic needs to be melted, molded (more energy), cleaned, shipped, filled and shipped again. There are several sites that take on this calculation. Even if we only begin with these sites and fact check them the science and thinking can be powerful learning.
The current research in education informs us that we do not give our students enough time to think creatively. Sir. Kenneth Robinson has an exceptional TED talk on the subject online.
To foster those creative thinking skills and integrate this unit with the art department we will hold not only a bottle art contest but hold a competition where teams of students compete to come up with the most creative reuse for a 20 oz water bottle (the most popular size here). The competition will be judged by folks from the local business that is donating the reusable water bottles. We will, of course, take that time to thank them for the donation.
This leads to a few suggestions from me. First, get involved in the community and have your students seek out opportunities to make positive changes that benefit all environmentally, reduce costs or generally make the community a more healthy place to live. Second, seek partnerships where local folks can collaborate and share resources like the water bottles or talent to help connect learning to real life and third find ways to use events like Earth Day to make learning a celebration of solutions.