Since President Obama took office in 2009, the Administration has made science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education as one of its priorities—making sure that opportunities and resources are available to succeed.
The President has made a commitment to hiring, developing, and retaining 100,000 effective STEM teachers. EPA’s Office of Environmental Education is working to reach that goal by placing STEM education as its focus in the 2016 Presidential Environmental Education Ceremony—an opportunity for the Nation’s brightest students to bring their projects and insights to the White House.
These awards—the President’s Environmental Youth Award (PEYA) and the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators (PIAEE)—emphasize the contributions of our Nation’s students and teachers to tackle our biggest environmental challenges with innovative projects and curriculums. On Tuesday, August 16, 2016, the Administration awarded incredible students and teachers for their environmental education accomplishments.
From job shadowing programs to nature-inspired environmental music to student meetings with local officials, these environmental leaders show that the problems that affect all Americans require solutions from all kinds of Americans.
Since 1971, the White House and the EPA have worked together to recognize young Americans for their efforts to protect air, water, land, and ecology. This year, the White House awarded the following projects:
Nutrasafe: Creating an Eco-Friendly Plant Food for the Environment
The Plant Phenoms: Madison Miles and Katherine Siciliano
Motivated by the threatening side effects posed by traditional agricultural fertilizers, Plant Phenoms Madison Miles and Katherine Siciliano sought to understand and pursue environmentally friendly alternatives. Although plants require nutrients to grow, traditional fertilizer application methods and amounts threaten the environment. Waters from brooks, streams, creeks, lakes, and oceans can become polluted by nitrates and phosphates. The overabundance of nitrogen and phosphorus can cause algae to multiply, particularly when waters are warm and calm. When the algae die, they are eaten by bacteria that deplete the oxygen and leave aquatic “dead zones,” where fish and other aquatic life cannot survive.
The Plant Phenoms developed and tested a new eco-friendly plant food called Nutrasafe. This plant food comes in soluble, vegetarian gel capsules that are filled with dried and ground banana and orange peels. By using gel capsules, the plant food can be easily distributed directly into the soil. The Plant Phenoms performed multiple trials with different fertilizers. Plants given Nutrasafe grew as well as plants given traditional fertilizers, and formed less algae in water. The Plant Phenoms have plans to present their work to middle school and elementary school students, and share Nutrasafe capsules with their community’s school gardens.
Fighting Deforestation of the Pine Barrens with Vertical GreenhousesFreehold, NJ
Greenhouse Gladiators: Ranjan Pati and Michael Abelar
The Pine Barrens, a sandy, coastal forest that covers over 1.1 million acres of New Jersey, is home to over 850 species of plants, 39 species of mammals, 91 species of fish, and 59 species of reptiles; is responsible for recharging the 17 trillion-gallon Kirkwood- Cohansey aquifer; and is a recognized International Biosphere Reserve. In recent years, the commercial production of blueberries and cranberries has contributed to damage and deforestation of the Pine Barrens. Ranjan Pati and Michael Abelar formed the Greenhouse Gladiators to combat deforestation due to these agriculture activities in the Pine Barrens.
The Greenhouse Gladiators designed a vertical greenhouse to combat local deforestation. Vertical greenhouses conserve the amount of farmland needed by growing plants upward on a series of open shelves, compared to traditional growing methods that take up wider land areas. These structures typically allow farmers to grow more crops, but are not cost-effective because they rely on expensive, light-emitting diode (LED) lighting. The Greenhouse Gladiators built a scale model of a cost-effective vertical greenhouse that used metal to reflect natural sunlight to the crops. In tests, the Greenhouse Gladiators found that their reflective design outperformed typical LED lighting. Their research was published in the Journal of Agricultural Engineering and Biotechnology.
Now, the Greenhouse Gladiators are working to build vertical greenhouses for local farmers and have created an online petition to raise money. Local farmers can receive a small vertical greenhouse if they pledge to not expand into the Pine Barrens. The Greenhouse Gladiators hope to send a message that with innovation, humans can coexist with the environment.
Zero Waste: Are You Sure?State College, PA
Park Forest Elementary School: Adam Lieb, Elijah Snyder, Robert Rothrock, Adam Cooper
Inspired by neighboring Pennsylvania State University’s sustainability efforts and a challenge from their principal, Park Forest Elementary School Zero Waste Team members Adam Lieb, Elijah Snyder, Robert Rothrock, and Adam Cooper are leading the charge to make their school become waste free.
To begin, the students collaborated with Pennsylvania State University to conduct a waste audit. After analyzing the data and developing a waste reduction plan, the Zero Waste Team began the “Are You Sure?” educational campaign to challenge students and staff to reduce waste and properly dispose of items that could be repurposed, recycled, or composted. Students’ goals included recycling milk bottles, plastic bags, disposable coffee pods, and other hard-to-recycle items. Another part of the waste reduction plan included composting: classroom waste in worm bins (also called vermicomposting), garden and yard waste in outside containers, and lunch room organic waste collected by a commercial composter. The Zero Waste Team also encouraged students and staff to use only one paper towel each after washing to dry their hands, and to compost those paper towels. As a result of the Zero Waste effort, the Park Forest Elementary School recycled 470 pounds of metal cans, 1,695 pounds of plastic bottles, and 9,660 pounds of mixed paper in 2015. While the school still produces some waste, there are measurable improvements from the Are You Sure? challenge. First, the school no longer fills its dumpster as quickly. The refuse truck arrives just two times per week versus five. Accordingly, the school’s waste disposal bills decreased from $534 to $261 per month.
As current students prepare to transition to middle school, they mentor new student leaders in order to maintain and expand the success of the Zero Waste Team. Additionally, the Zero Waste Team is working with their county waste professionals to replicate the Are You Sure? challenge and bring proven practices to neighboring schools.
Impact of Energy Consumption Reduction on Household Carbon FootprintsRohan Chalasani
Rohan Chalasani completed this project after becoming interested in the impact of an individual household on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change mitigation. He investigated the impact of relatively hassle-free, energy-saving methods on a single household’s environmental footprint. Rohan conducted an experiment over the course of two weeks, breaking down energy-conserving methods into three areas: electricity, natural gas, and water. The first week, he measured the energy consumption in the household with no conservation actions taken. The second week, Rohan lowered the thermostat by 33.8 degrees Fahrenheit, unplugged appliances at night, reduced light use, and shortened shower times to 10 minutes per shower.
Rohan calculated that the household experienced a 23% reduction in its total carbon dioxide emissions due to the energy-conservation actions. He found that while taking a shorter shower had a minimal effect on energy usage, reducing natural gas had significant effects on the household’s total carbon footprint, contributing to a 75% total reduction. Rohan extrapolated the results of his experiment to show that if 50% of households implemented his same methods, the United States could see a 200 million metric-ton reduction in total carbon dioxide emissions. This is the equivalent of reducing emissions from 4.1 million barrels of oil. Rohan’s results underscore that small actions taken by many individuals have the potential to yield measurable greenhouse gas emissions reductions.
e-Treasure, Inc.Orlando, FL
After discovering electronic waste is the fastest-growing segment of items in landfills, Kady McKenna came up with the idea of eTreasure to keep the environment free of electronic waste, use resources wisely, and protect the Earth. She began electronics collection drives to ensure the proper disposal of electronics. When possible, these electronics are refurbished and redistributed to help people in her community. Cell phones, tablets, and computers are first cleared and then donated to students, schools, soldiers, or other community members who otherwise would not have access to these technologies.
Kady has placed collection containers at schools throughout her county, and worked with city professionals to collect and ensure proper disposal, refurbishing, and redistribution of electronic waste. Since its inception in March 2015, eTreasure, Inc. has developed partnerships with local corporations, registered as a nonprofit corporation, collected over 500 pounds of eTrash, and become an official “Cell Phones for Soldiers” public drop-off location. Kady’s goal for e-Treasure is to eventually provide refurbished tablets to every student in the county.
Low-Cost Hetero-nanostructure Semiconductor Uses Visible Light Energy to Efficiently Degrade ToxinsChapel Hill, NC
Joshua Zhou successfully created a more efficient, low-cost, and environmentally friendly method of improving water quality and reducing pollution, particularly the pollutant 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD). TCDD is a persistent, manmade human toxin unintentionally produced during manufacturing or incomplete combustion from fires, automobiles, coal-based power production, and other processes. TCDD contaminates rivers and other drinking water sources, impairs ecosystems, and has well-documented adverse impacts on human health. Joshua discovered existing TCDD remediation technologies were both inefficient and expensive, limiting their widespread use. He developed a unique material of semiconductor crystals that can affordably and efficiently degrade pollutants using visible light energy.
Not only does the new material successfully degrade TCDD, one of the most stable organic pollutants, but it will degrade most pollutants. The material needed to accomplish this costs just $0.05 and once placed in the environment, has no operational costs due to its passive use of visible light. Joshua hopes that the technology will serve as an affordable air and water pollution remediation option in developing nations. He has received international recognition and was honored with EPA’s prestigious Patrick H. Hurd Sustainability Award for his innovative approach to producing a safe, affordable, and simple method for degrading pollutants.
2015 Funded Projects of the Carmel Green Teen Micro-Grant ProgramCarmel, IN
The Carmel Green Teen: Sitha Vallabhaneni, Shiva Vallabhaneni, Aaron Varnau, Natalie Crawford, Lauren Masoncup, Eden Szydlowski, Laasya Mamidipalli, Ilsa Shaikh
The Carmel Green Teen Micro-Grant Program is a nonprofit, youth-led program that empowers young people to take action by funding youth-driven projects. The goal of its eight teenage board members, also called the Carmel Green Teen, is to challenge youth in Carmel, Indiana, to use their skills, creativity, and energy to help make their community greener and more sustainable. Since 2009, the Carmel Green Teen has funded and supervised 43 grant projects that engaged over 800 young people. Funded projects have reduced pollution, conserved natural resources, saved energy, and restored native habitats and species. The team oversees the execution of each project and gauges its environmental impact.
In 2015, the Carmel Green Teen administered six community environmental projects, including two projects to promote the recycling of water bottles and aluminum cans, two projects to encourage the use of reusable water bottles, a project to create beneficial habitat conditions for Monarch butterflies, and a project to support an Earth fair. The projects completed in 2015 and prior have positive benefits to the local environment. Some of the quantified benefits include:
Planting over 2,200 trees, bushes, and wildflowers, recycling tons of materials from school cafeterias each month, reducing 500 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, eliminating the use of more than half a million plastic bags and thousands of plastic water bottles each year, and distributing compact fluorescent light bulbs, saving $2,100 in electricity bills each year.
Additionally, through the work of the Carmel Green Teen and its supported projects, youth learn about environmental stewardship and become environmental champions in the community.
Chicago Youth Center Sunshine Youth GardenChicago, IL
Nature Team, Chicago Youth Centers: Marrissa Walls, Dejeon Jackson, Kamia Jackson, Jahliyah Wright, Donell Walker, Brianna Sawyer, Terrell Jackson, Edward Jackson, Sincere Terry, Shundrea Hines, Joshua Briggs McCloud, Isaiah Holman, Jazmine Watkins, Canila Walker, Shamyria Hines, Stefani Berry, Tariah Staples, Marquis Watkins
The Chicago Youth Center (CYC) Nature Team is a group of 18 energetic, enthusiastic, and outdoor-loving students aged 5–9 years who plan and care for the CYC Sunshine Youth Garden. The garden serves as an outdoor classroom for students to learn and teach others; a peaceful place for kids to work, play, and relax together; and a place for students to share fun activities with their families, friends, and neighbors. Garden mainstays include a community mural, sculptures, a memory garden, and vegetable and herb gardens.
The Sunshine Youth Garden engages students year-round. In the winter, the Nature Team brainstormed and planned the garden for the following summer. For the 2014–2015 season, the Nature Team planned sections of the garden, including a strawberry patch, a sunflower challenge, and “Worm City” – an area for composting, checking weather, and digging worms. In the spring, team members hosted a community garden party to kick off the gardening season. Over the summer and fall, team members donated fresh tomatoes, greens, carrots, peppers, and sunflowers to neighbors who visited the garden. The Nature Team members are eager to share what they have learned, and plan to work with other children to create another youth garden.
Formation of Casis Forest ClubAustin, TX
The Casis Elementary School adjoins a three-acre tract of forest land affectionately called the “Casis Forest.” Through a community volunteer, student Drew Buerger learned of some threats to the forest’s long-term health, including compacted soil, severe erosion, a lack of understory, and invasive species. Drew founded the Casis Forest Club and enlisted his peers to restore and protect the land. He arranged monthly meetings with students, a faculty sponsor, parents, community members, and outside experts to learn about the forest’s health and pick up trash. They also conducted forest maintenance activities such as mulching trails, building erosion control features, and planting native species.
Five years later, the Casis Forest Club has successfully improved the health of the forest by at least two measures. First, the number of desirable plant and animal species has increased. Second, the city’s Water Protection Department has attributed the students’ work to downstream water quality improvements. There has also been a positive impact on the school’s educational mission. Teachers conduct academic lessons in the forest. Physical education classes, including cross-country running on the trails, now take place in the forest. The club continues today with support from families, community members, environmental organizations, and parent-teacher association donations.
Beyond the Classroom Recycles at St. Mary’sEdmond, OK
St. Mary’s Episcopal School student Rhodes Molenda decided to take action when he learned that the school’s recycling program was coming to an end. Rhodes devised a new recyclables collection program that would be cost-free for the school. After seeking support from the school’s administrator, Rhodes placed recycling bins in each classroom and staff workroom. Every week, Rhodes and students from the Beyond the Classroom program collected plastic, aluminum, and paper recyclables. A local Girl Scout Troop then took these recyclables to the proper disposal location. By collecting and delivering the recyclables, the school did not need to pay for a separate recycling service, making the project cost-free and sustainable with ongoing support from student volunteers.
Inspired by Rhodes’ recycling initiative, students in the Beyond the Classroom program launched another campaign to save electricity. To begin, the students are turning off school computers each afternoon and taking responsibility to restart them each morning. In another classroom, students are encouraged to use reusable lunch boxes instead of plastic or paper bags. In fact, across the school there has been a shift in attitude with young students holding teachers and staff accountable for properly sorting recyclables. Rhodes hopes to establish a program for composting cafeteria leftovers in the near future.
The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa Recycling Program AssistancePella, IA
Laurel Stelter has successfully participated in six Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) events since she was 13. RAGBRAI is a 7-day bicycling event that attracts 8,500 riders and 15,000 to 40,000 spectators to Iowa each year. During her third time participating, Laura became concerned by the lack of recycling along the route and contacted the event planners to begin and sustain a bottle and can recycling campaign. Prior to Laurel’s involvement, communities along the route were given minimal guidance on trash disposal and recycling. Yet, each of the riders produced an estimated 1.5 gallons of trash during a typical overnight stopover.
With support from RAGBRAI, Laurel’s campaign encouraged towns along the route to provide recycling opportunities for riders. In order to achieve this, Laurel researched recycling programs across the state; designed and gave a PowerPoint presentation to host communities; developed resources and tip sheets; helped event planners with key recycling messages, signage, and placement; and documented successes and areas for improvement. After the program began, Laurel documented recycling opportunities during RAGBRAI and their convenience for riders. In 2014, Laurel expanded on what she had learned, revising her presentation and trash disposal and recycling guidance in RAGBRAI handbooks. The community response to her message has been overwhelmingly positive. Laurel has become known as the “RAGBRAI recycling girl” and found that communities are eager to show her their improved recycling containers. She is currently sharing her experience to improve recycling at other community events.
Osage Earth CareLinn, MO
Concerned about the quantity of school waste headed to the local landfill, Cameron Gehlert began the Osage Earth Care initiative to recycle paper. In fall 2013, Cameron began placing collection boxes for recyclable paper in every middle school classroom. Implementation spread to the high school in fall 2014 and the elementary school in October 2015. As the initiative spread, so have the types of recyclables collected. The initiative now also accepts plastic bottles, newspapers, and magazines at local schools. Each month the initiative collects approximately 1,440 gallon of recyclables, which Cameron personally helps collect from bins and deliver to appropriate facilities for recycling.
Outside the school system, Cameron coordinates with local businesses to collect and recycle cardboard. He uses a vertical cardboard baler to prepare the cardboard for recycling. Thus far, he has diverted over 4,000 pounds of cardboard from landfills. Through his actions, Cameron hopes to foster environmental awareness, and mainstream recycling practices among his peers and other community members.
Solar Panels: Short and Long Rays of EffectLittleton, CO
Mackintosh Academy: Skyler Bernard, Sydney Gelman, Nicholas Booth, Delia Guilbert
Believing solar power is a safe and cost-effective means for generating energy, Mackintosh Academy 6th graders Skyler Bernard, Sydney Gelman, Nicholas Booth, and Delia Guilber researched, wrote, and successfully earned a grant to install solar panels at their school. In parallel with a solar panel installation two years later, the students spearheaded two campaigns to begin educating their peers on the benefits of solar power and to launch interest in the panels and their performance. First, at the Solar Celebration, the Mackintosh community celebrated the panel installation with informative presentations, and creative songs and dance. The celebration cultivated enthusiasm for the panels and the power they would generate. Second, during the Autumnal Equinox Inquiry, each classroom tracked data from the panels’ monitoring system and presented the findings about the system and how energy is harnessed from the sun. The students used videos, skits, songs, and artwork to distill this complex information.
Additionally, the students are using system monitoring data to inform building operations. For example, they determined that certain buildings were using air conditioning in excess. As a result of the solar panels and improved practices, Mackintosh Academy is saving thousands of dollars on its electricity bill. With these savings, the students have developed a “Solar Scholar” scholarship fund. The solar panels have successfully prevented nearly 20,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from being generated and will continue to produce environmental, economic, and educational benefits for the school and community.
Ban Styrofoam in Lake County SchoolsLeadville, CO
The Styrofoam Stoppers: Clara Kirr, Nicole Caves, Violet Hill, Hunter Dee
Clara Kirr, Nicole Caves, Violet Hill, and Hunter Dee formed the Styrofoam Stoppers to try to eliminate the use of polystyrene in their school cafeteria after learning about its negative environmental and health consequences. To begin, the Styrofoam Stoppers researched barriers to moving away from polystyrene and alternative options for the school. They presented their findings to other classrooms and reached out to a local conservation organization. They also made changes in their personal habits (e.g., using paper napkins instead of polystyrene plates during snack time and encouraging other students to do the same).
Next, the Styrofoam Stoppers teamed up with the Lake County High School Green Team and the Cloud City Conservation Center to conduct waste audits in their district. The student found that the school district was a major producer of waste, sending almost 120,000 pounds of it to a landfill each year, 16% of which was food packaging, including polystyrene. The students compiled this information for the school district. They showed it would be more economical to wash reusable dishes than to purchase and dispose of polystyrene. As a result, the Styrofoam Stoppers successfully convinced the school board to end the use of polystyrene in the entire district beginning in the 2015–2016 school year. By banning polystyrene and switching to reusable bowls, silverware, and trays, the Styrofoam Stoppers helped the district significantly reduce its waste and contribute to the community’s overall waste diversion goals.
Water Conservation at Meadows Elementary with Earth LibraryManhattan Beach, CA
Joshua Cigoianu, a fifth grade student at Meadows Elementary School, was inspired to action as he learned about the California drought. With approval from the school principal, Joshua began educating his peers with illustrative flyers, changing the way art brushes were cleaned to reduce water usage, and starting an Earth Library – for fellow students to access books about environmental protection.
After taking these initial steps, Joshua took note of his fellow students’ actions and further sought to improve awareness. He created additional posters with water conservation tips, provided “Meadows Water Hero” stickers to students that used reusable water bottles, and set up a booth at Science Night advocating for water conservation and encouraging students to sign a pledge to save water and the Earth. Joshua still hopes to implement several longer-term actions at the school, including replacing grass with turf, installing sensor-activated sinks, adding mulch to plant beds, and planting drought-tolerant plant varieties. Through his efforts, Joshua estimates that he has reached more than 600 students and their families. He has realized that one person can inspire people to make a difference and, at the same time, make a difference as an individual.
Solving Storm and Flash Floods in City Streets by Using Network of Flow SensorsCupertino, CA
After getting caught in a flood-induced traffic jam with her family, student Sanjana Shah observed that street flooding causes major cascading disruptions in the lives of thousands of people. To better understand and address street flooding, she completed an independent project consisting of original research, development of a monitoring device, and a pilot project to test the device. In her research, she discovered that the major causes for street flooding are clogged drains, insufficient and non-uniform distribution of drain openings, inadequate drain pipe sizes, and changes in soil permeability over the years.
Sanjana developed the Smart Flood Sensor, using a magnetic, flow-sensor monitoring device, to collect water flow data at drain openings. Via a Bluetooth module, these data are uploaded to central Internet of Things servers and analyzed to predict floods and their severity at nearby drain openings. Sanjana tested these Smart Flood Sensors in her local neighborhood. She configured the sensors to send data to the servers and alert her neighbors when flood threshold levels exceeded 75% of drain pipe capacity. Sanjana believes her sensors have the potential to generate real-time alerts, proactively deploy crews that can fix damaged or clogged drain openings, and prevent flooding.
Creating a Salmon Mascot for Kitsap CountySilverdale, WA
Bigg Redd Designers/Clear Creek Elementary School: Kody Karmody, Klara Davis, Isabel Fleck, Ryder Helstrom-Wilson, Charlize Katz, Brooke Keeley, Renz Cesar Lucas, Danella Lei Romera, Ruby Smith, Bailey Stalh, and Jacob White
Studying salmon and their habitats, Clear Creek Elementary fourth graders decided to raise awareness and knowledge about salmon populations with fellow community members. The students determined that a mascot could educate community members that salmon presence is an important indicator of local watershed health. The students designed the mascot with the help of an international mascot company and held a community vote to select its name, “Big Redd.” Big Redd has made appearances at local elementary, middle, and high schools; salmon releases with fingerlings raised by students; the annual Seafair’s Whaling Days parade; the Hood Canal Green Summit; and at salmon camps at the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group property.
Additional efforts by these students have helped raise awareness about watershed health. They created a video explaining why the watershed is important to salmon populations and painted a mural highlighting the importance of the community’s creek. The students feel they have achieved their goal of raising awareness among other students and community members.
Story Warren has been passionate about wolves since she observed them in the wild as a young child. She enjoys studying the wolves’ history, behavior, ecology, and impacts on other species. To bolster this knowledge, she meets with wolf scientists, attends coexistence workshops, interviews nongovernmental organization leaders, volunteers at Wolf Haven International, and studies wolves in the wild.
Story created Kids4Wolves to share her knowledge with other young people about conserving and coexisting with wolves. Kids4Wolves has initiated numerous letter-writing campaigns, participated in policy proceedings, and created informational videos. Story hopes to positively change attitudes about wolves by communicating in-person and across Kids4Wolves’ various social media platforms. Her goal is to generate interest among young people about wildlife and the outdoors, educate students with well-founded science, and inspire people to get involved in wolf-related policy. Kids4Wolves has a presence in many classrooms; the news media; and local, federal, and state policy proceedings.
Since 2011, the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the EPA have worked to bring public attention to the environmental efforts by teachers who use innovative approaches to environmental education and use the environment as a context for learning. This year, the White House awarded the following teachers and projects:
LaFayette Jr/Sr High School
David Amidon has been teaching physical and life sciences to middle school students since 1999. During this time, he has engaged students in a variety of lessons to improve their understanding of the human impacts to ecosystems and environmental sustainability. Several of David’s lessons integrate technology and environmental education. Using tablet computers, students identify invasive plant species on the school grounds; or complete a simulation of toxin bioaccumulation, recording toxin levels to instantly create data charts and graphs. His Green Building Initiative used the school’s renovation as an opportunity to help students research the feasibility and costs associated with green building and infrastructure, including new lighting and green roofs. In collaboration with interns from the Sustainable Materials Management Stewardship Program at Syracuse University called My Impact, students analyze their personal waste generation habits and learn about aspects of sustainability like composting, recycling, and repurposing. In another of David’s lessons, his students investigate historical factors contributing to the pollution of a nearby Superfund site, Onondaga Lake. David tries to continually create new projects or find new groups for his students to work with.
David hopes to integrate his lessons, projects, and approach at the school district level. He is already developing a project to convert a drainage basin into a rain garden. Through his participation in the New York State Master Teacher Program, David is helping to convene a Youth Climate Summit, bringing together students from 20 districts.
Manhattan School for Children
New York City, NY
Shakira Provasoli has been a kindergarten–12th grade educator in New York City for 16 years. Over the past five years, she developed a curriculum centered on her school’s greenhouse that incorporates the New York City Science Scope and Sequence. Instead of covering compartmentalized topics or lessons, Shakira uses long-term projects to let students delve into topics and generate in-depth knowledge. Curriculum topics include systems and cycles, environmental interaction, sustainable solutions, and sustainable cities. Each year, kindergarten–5th grade students revisit the same curriculum topics or themes using different subject matter; each subsequent year requires more initiative and involvement from the students. In kindergarten and first grade classrooms, Shakira reads to students about subject matter selected by the entire class. In the second grade and beyond, groups of students identify a problem and Shakira teaches them how to use books, internet articles, and interviews to conduct research. Students then work together to brainstorm multiple solutions to the problem and present their solutions using posters, videos, public service announcements, letters, models, songs, plays, or board games. Her fourth grade classes collaborate to build hydroponic systems from an air pump, bike needles, plastic tubing, and water bottles, with each student tasked to help with one specific part of the construction. Students then test the effect of water pollution on the growth of plants. Shakira always emphasizes both individual achievement and collaboration among students.
Shakira extends her teaching scope outside of the kindergarten–5th grade classroom, as well. She taught a 36-hour “Water, Energy, and Waste: Integrating Themes of Sustainability into Your Classroom” course for the After School Professional Development Program. Shakira also taught a hydroponics workshop at the Environmental Study Center in New York City. She currently offers workshops to teachers to help with management, operations, and curriculum for greenhouses at their respective schools.
Floyd E. Kellam High
Virginia Beach, VA
For 13 years, Christopher Freeman has challenged his 11th and 12th grade students to address real-world problems and engaged them in thoughtful discourse, idea generation, experimentation, and collaboration. He believes in a student-centric approach that empowers students to make a difference in their community by becoming engaged environmental stewards and devising solutions. As a result, many of his projects involve the local community. In one instance, Christopher convinced an architectural firm to collaborate with his students on the design of a new school. His students worked with architects, engineers, and each other to develop designs and create scaled three-dimensional models of an edible garden, an outdoor classroom/gathering area, and a natural marsh water purification site. In another instance, he installed a 200-gallon aquaponics system with a soilless garden bed in his classroom, because many of his students’ families are involved in farming. After students learned that high levels of nitric acid were hurting the fish, they ran tests, researched the cause of the problem, and developed a solution involving potassium bicarbonate. Christopher has found that current environmental events are among the most important drivers of content in his classroom.
At a broader level, Christopher created the Kellam High School’s Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Challenge in which students worked together to create solutions to help Hamptons Roads cope with climate change and sea level rise. He also helped promote an academic and behavioral shift by convincing the administration to offer an Advanced Placement Environmental Science class and establishing two environmental clubs: the Kellam Agricultural Engineers and the Pollen-Nation clubs. He envisions expanding environmental education into other subject areas in order to increase environmental literacy.
Lolita Cariaso Kiorpes
North Point High School
For almost two decades, Lolita Kiorpes has taught high school students the importance of a healthy environment through appreciation, learning, and enjoyment of the outdoors. She places a strong emphasis on her students getting outdoors, participating in outdoor activities, and taking leadership and planning roles. She gives students numerous opportunities to experience the environment through canoeing, water quality testing, macroinvertebrate studies, trash collection, and stream cleaning. Her students have educated community members about National Marine Sanctuaries, as well as planted native flower gardens and trees to increase awareness of climate change, watershed health, and ocean health. When she cannot bring her students outdoors, she seeks out ways to bring the environment into her classroom. Through the Department of Natural Resources-sponsored programs Raising Horseshoe Crabs in the Classroom and Trout in the Classroom, her students have learned the importance of sustainability, healthy ecosystems, and the vitality of saltwater habitats. These programs allow students to learn real-world scientific and technical skills such as caring for animals and conducting water tests.
Last year Lolita and her students became the first National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Ocean Guardian School in Maryland. She and a team of students conducted outreach to teach other students what they had learned about watershed and ocean health, National Marine Sanctuaries, climate change, and environmental stewardship. Lolita also newly incorporated climate change lessons into her curriculum. These lessons engage her class in discussions on how California’s drought has altered the water cycle, and vegetative, animal, and watershed health; and how the ramifications of these changes spread far beyond California’s borders. Lolita has many more field outings planned through her NOAA Ocean Guardian School Grant, and aims to bring environmental awareness to as many students and community members as possible.
New Philadelphia High School
New Philadelphia, OH
At New Philadelphia High School, Kip Brady has developed engaging field studies that immerse his 10th, 11th, and 12th grade students in authentic investigations of their local environment and ecosystems. Most of the environmental education experiences that he developed involve the scientific study of how human land use influences biological diversity. His students have conducted multiple studies of post-mining ecosystems and restoration. During the 2012–2013 school year, he coordinated with landowners across Tuscarawas County so that over 700 students could examine how surface coal mining history has affected salamander diversity. This project allowed students to learn about local salamander diversity, the ecology and physiology of salamanders, the importance of forest integrity to forest-dependent species, experimental design, and how to analyze and interpret replicated data. Kip also found ways for students at all grade levels to engage and involve their families in learning about forest ecology. He leads nocturnal survey events during spring and autumn evenings at local nature centers. Before going out to explore the forest, these events brief participants about forest ecology, species they are likely to encounter, and proper etiquette for nocturnal surveying.
Kip has conducted numerous professional development activities at the district, county, and state levels to share his ideas for environmental education. In addition to providing experiences that combine science and environmental education, he has demonstrated to students and teachers that learning is an ongoing process.
Sycamore Community High School
Ronald Hochstrasser has been an educator for almost three decades. At Sycamore Community High School, he has worked to create a space where his urban and suburban students can increase their awareness of nature. Ronald and his students have constructed several gardens, each with a different function. One garden sequesters and filters water from the school parking lot, another provides a milkweed habitat for butterflies, and another provides fresh herbs for school meals. Many of Ronald’s projects rely on the numerous trees that he, his students, and community volunteers have planted over the years. In one project, students use forestry tools such as a Biltmore stick to measure trees. In another forestry-related project, students develop their own field guides for local species including mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and birds. Ronald also developed a simulated stream due to the lack of any in the immediate area. Students investigate the health of the stream and develop a pollution profile by collecting data on water quality and hundreds of macroinvertebrates.
Ronald has increased the opportunities for students, parents, and community members to immerse themselves in nature through extra-curricular activities. He began a birdseed sale through the school’s environmental club. He also partnered with the Ohio River Foundation so that students can construct rain gardens throughout the community, monitor local water quality, and assist in the removal of invasive species in parks and natural spaces. He is currently integrating broader subject matter (e.g., foreign languages), additional grade levels, more diverse learners (e.g., special needs students), and more expansive geographies (e.g., school, district, community) to develop rain gardens and advance environmental stewardship education.
Accelere Program Omaha Public Schools
Shawn Graham has been teaching 11th and 12th grade students for 13 years. His two main goals are to generate a deeper understanding of course topics by connecting his students with the environment, and encourage students to pursue life-long learning through post-secondary education. Three years ago, Shawn created the Accelere Job Shadowing/Internship program, which identifies students’ interests and matches students with community partners in relevant fields. Since the creation of Accelere, Shawn has taken advantage of these partnerships in a number of classroom projects. For example, with the Nebraska Games and Parks Hatchery, students utilized the school’s new hydroponic laboratory to assess ways to increase food production while maintaining a healthy ecosystem for White Nile Tilapia. Shawn also coordinated with city staff, students, and Omaha Permaculture personnel to “green” vacant and unused properties. In one year, his students grew an estimated $2,000 of plants from these properties for use by the city. In conjunction with the Scott Aquarium at the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo, his students assessed water quality, analyzed data, and made recommendations to improve water quality.
In addition to offering an after-school explorations option, where students can work on their own projects, Shawn engages his student in extra-curricular activities that benefit the community. At the Spring Festival, he and his students distributed free pollinator and vegetable plants to the public.
Highlands Ranch High School
Highlands Ranch, CO
For a decade, Heather Berry has ignited her students’ passion about science and the environment through hands-on activities, connecting current events with classroom subject matter, and her unique “Project Based Learning Series.” By challenging her students to make their school or community more environmentally sustainable, they have developed several interesting year-long projects, including creating recycling and composting programs, using outdoor classrooms, installing a solar-powered cell phone charging station, and working with elementary schools to increase their environmental sustainability. Her students also complete research projects on population growth, environmental biodiversity, and energy consumption and savings that require consideration of economic, religious, cultural, and governmental topics at the country level. Heather recently began an international collaboration opportunity; her students communicate about their daily lives and share sustainability projects with a school in Taiwan. In a similar fashion, she has extended environmental education beyond the classroom by taking her students on local, national, and international field trips. She and her co-workers have taken students to Hawaii, Iceland, the Galapagos Islands, and elsewhere to explore human impacts on these areas and participate in volunteer activities to improve the environment.
Heather participates in numerous speaking events, surveys fellow teachers to help integrate environmental curriculum into other content areas, and serves on a district Sustainability Steering Committee to add environmental education to other schools’ curriculums. She is planning a retreat with at least one teacher from each of the district’s schools to help broaden the scope of environmental education. Heather is also developing a partnership with a middle school in Taiwan so that her students can correspond on tree-planting and pond-building projects.
Lake County High School
Monika Cloys has assumed many educational roles in her 11-year teaching career, including alternative program coordinator, science teacher, and online instructor. She uses curriculum ideas gained through her graduate work to develop educational units focused on citizen science and key environmental issues. These units require students to investigate real data and, in-turn, build critical thinking skills. In Our Changing Climate, her students use current scientific data and data collected by indigenous people to study climate change in the Arctic. This project involves data analysis, hands-on science lessons, as well as student-led investigations and presentations. In her Ocean Journeys unit, students used the U.S. Satellite Laboratory’s Animals in Curriculum-based Ecosystem Studies (ACES) curriculum to learn about the role of oceans in human and animal journeys. The community service portion of her curriculum has expanded greatly in recent years as she has sought ways to get students in the field whenever possible. Her students conducted a waste audit for a recycling project and successfully petitioned multiple stakeholders to begin a composting initiative in order to reduce waste.
Outside of the classroom, Monika was involved in a teacher workshop to create lesson plans revolving around the district’s composting initiative. Additionally, it is her hope that all school districts in the upper Arkansas River Valley will use her district’s environmental educational model for soil science and begin composting initiatives.
Yosemite High School
Jeff Rivero is a U.S. History and Current Events teacher at Yosemite High School who has combined environmental education with his curriculum to teach students about policies, behaviors, and decisions involving both economics and natural resources. He teaches 88 current events lessons, covering topics such as energy use, fuel resources, renewable energy, climate change, pollution, waste water treatment, and overpopulation. Examples of his students’ projects include creating a campus policy to conserve water, researching plastic bags made from protein, and advocating for drought-resistant landscaping on part of the school campus. His students explore their own areas of interest, and through an after-school program called the Dragon Academy, Jeff offers after-school opportunities in worm farming, composting and recycling, gardening, social justice, and community service projects. These community service projects include volunteering to install low- to no-cost solar electricity systems through a partnership with GRID Alternatives. Jeff ensures that his students improve their environmental literacy by taking them outside of the classroom. He has taken his students to Yosemite National Park; Santa Cruz, CA; and Monterey Bay’s Aquarium to teach lessons on ocean life, the effects of plastic on sea life, and natural resource exploitation. Jeff has also taken his students to speak with government staff about environmental policies such as solar power. He attends conferences and summits throughout the year to integrate the newest information into his classroom. For instance, he will present a “Meet the Greens” lesson developed for the California Educational and Environment Initiative Curriculum at this year’s California Science, Technology, Engineering and Math symposium.
Jose FloresBrawley Union High School
Jose Flores has been an educator for 25 years, filling numerous additional roles to share his experience and the exemplary environmental work of his students. His students have participated in programs such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Action Kit, Salton Sea Now! – A Tipping Point, Kids Making Sense’s AirBeam air quality monitoring, Identifying Violations Affecting Neighborhood’s (IVAN’s) environmental violation crowdsourcing, California’s Blueprint for Environmental Literacy, and Revitalizing K-12 Civic Learning in California: A Blueprint for Action. His students have been able to apply and transfer their education in Next Generation Science Standards to government and civics subject matter. Jose’s students regularly correspond and interact with government officials, and engage in environmental topics relevant to their community. For instance, they tracked household water consumption during the recent drought in California. Recently, Jose’s students co-hosted an event with Comite Civico del Valle to teach over 300 individuals nationwide about issues such as diesel fuel, pollution, asthma, indoor air quality, and pesticides.
Jose has supplemented his classroom contributions by serving on the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning, California’s Environmental Literacy Steering Committee, and the California Department of Education’s Instructional Quality Commission. He has also advocated for more environmental education throughout other departments, and trained fellow teachers on concepts such as water, air, solar, and pesticides.
Laura TylerSouth Shore PK-8 School
Laura Tyler has spent three decades as an educator helping improve urban students’ environmental understanding and the environmental sustainability of her school system. Recognizing the importance of creating a connection between nature and her students, and providing urban students with a relaxing natural environment, Laura brings her students on field trips that allow them to see a variety of local ecosystems. Her Solutions and Pollutions unit, for instance, teaches students about water chemistry by having them test water quality at nearby Lake Washington. With the help of the Seattle Parks Department, her students have helped restore part of the East Duwamish Greenbelt. Students set up transect lines to subdivide a plot of land in order to count invasive and native plants, and then remove invasive species and plant native species. Laura also collaborates with Seattle Tilth so that her students learn about soil, farming, livestock, and the variety of crops grown in their area. To ensure her students keep this connection to nature in the classroom, she invites guests to speak about topics such as the importance of clean water for oysters and future improvement plans for local creeks.
In addition to her contributions in the classroom and in the field with her students, Laura has had a major impact on the environmental sustainability of her district and community. When she began teaching 30 years ago, she helped start and grow a four-school recycling program into a recycling and composting program that now exists in every school in the district. She worked with Seattle Public Utilities to pilot a Salmon in the Classroom project that ran for 10 years, and currently serves on the city’s Environmental Education Committee.
Megan AlamedaBaker Technical Institute
Baker City, OR
Over the past three years, Megan Alameda has transitioned her teaching from a purely instructional format into a collaborative and interactive process that engages her students in the cleanup of a nearby brownfield. Her students have learned about brownfields, researched and written Requests for Proposals, worked with administrators to select and hire a cleanup firm, reviewed documents related to the cleanup such as the Quality Assurance Project Plan, observed various aspects of the cleanup, and presented their knowledge at a public open house and state brownfield conferences. The project-based nature of her class allows grades 9–12 students to fill roles such as managers, coordinators, specialists, researchers, and presenters that best match their individual strengths. Megan and her students have partnered with various organizations such as the Powder Basin Watershed Council to get students in the field at least once a month and participate in aspects of the brownfield cleanup process. She has also connected with local businesses and organizations in order to find additional brownfield projects. Megan’s class engages previously disenchanted students who did not anticipate pursuing education beyond high school. She strives to teach students that they have opportunities in the environmental sciences while showing them how the classroom content connects to an environmentally sustainable lifestyle.
These students and teachers show that our Nation’s biggest problems need educators and learners, and that with the issue of the environment. We look forward to hearing more about their remarkable achievements.
Bo Machayo is Special Assistant to the Associate Director for Public Engagement for the Council on Environmental Quality.