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COOL SCHOOLS | Lower Ed Aims High

Eco-contests channel kids' competitive urges and their enthusiasm for all things environmental

By Jessi Phillips

College students aren't the only young people getting rivalrous in the race to save the planet. Even sixth graders are vying to reduce their consumption and innovate green solutions. Considering that science fairs and math contests have long been extracurricular staples for grade school whizzes, it's natural that the format should expand to include environmental issues.

Last year's Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge, an annual, nationwide K-12 contest that encourages students to develop Earth-preserving ideas, "opened doors," said Hector Ibarra, an Iowa teacher who mentored the winning team. "It opened students' eyes as to what the possibilities really are."

Ibarra's Team Dead Weight, from West Branch Middle School, researched the lead weights used to balance car tires. With a local scientist's help, the students followed EPA protocol and determined that the weights were poisoning waterways, soil, and air. The students then traveled to Washington, D.C., to share their findings with federal officials, a meeting that encouraged the EPA to recognize lead wheel weights' toxicity and to pass legislation to phase them out. Later, California legislators used the children's research to help pass a statewide ban.

More than 2,000 students participated in the 2009 Siemens challenge—double the number that signed up in 2008. "Everybody likes to participate in something where they can showcase what they've learned," Siemens president Jeniffer Harper-Taylor said. "Team Dead Weight had the chance to impact legislation on a national level, which is a pretty big deal for a middle school student."

In California, the 2010 Edison Challenge Environmental Science Competition drew entries from 67 middle and high schools. Medea Creek Middle School, in Oak Park, won for its campaign to raise awareness about vampire energy (the electricity sucked up by appliances that are plugged in but not in use), and Santa Monica High School won for its testing of ocean bacteria. The winning teams got a weeklong trip to Catalina Island, and their teachers received stipends ranging from $150 to $500.

Competition, however, isn't the only way to promote responsible living, said Laura Hickey, senior director of Eco Schools USA. "Contests are big for the moment," she said, "and environmental education is something that should be integrated into the curriculum. If the school can parlay a contest and the enthusiasm for green activities and incorporate it into their daily practice, that would have a much longer effect."

Most schools that participate continue their green efforts after a contest has ended, according to Katy Perry, who coordinates the Green Cup Challenge. More than 200 elementary, middle, and high schools in 22 states entered Green Cup's 2010 four-week energy-reduction competition, focusing mainly on small efforts such as turning down thermostats and shutting off lights. Afterward, power consumption among these schools fell an average of 5 percent, with some reducing their energy use by as much as 28 percent.

"It helps to energize a culture shift within a school," Perry explained. "Any time you want to change something, you need to be able to measure it, so putting it in terms of the competition helps them to quantify their progress."

For Jackson Smith, a third grader at Manhattan's P.S. 166, the Richard Rodgers School of the Arts and Technology, a Green Cup Challenge regional winner (the school slashed its energy consumption by almost 18 percent in a matter of four winter weeks), the contest tapped into existing motivations. "We really didn't think we were going to win, but we still put a lot of effort into it," he said. "It showed us what we could do and how it would help the earth, and that's why we pushed ourselves. It wasn't just the Green Cup Challenge."

 

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