A few years ago, my students became bothered by the number of plastic bags showing up in the Guyandotte River, which winds behind our school and through our rural southern West Virginia towns. They believed that recycling and other waste management options would decrease littering, but we didn’t know where to start—our rural county had no recycling program.
As an AmeriCorps alumna, I was familiar with launching community programs without a budget. By merging apprenticeships and project-based learning (PBL) in my environmental science class, we were able to create our county’s first recycling program.
Our students initially started an after-school recycling program, which rapidly evolved into our county’s only recycling center within one year. We grew so quickly that we needed outside help, fast. PepsiCo Recycling Rally provides curriculum and equipment to jump-start recycling collection at your school, so we started to use those resources.
Merging PBL with the apprenticeship model provided a framework for designing units with learning outcomes that build critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills. Operating a recycling center does not work if our student body and community do not know our recycling procedures, what can be recycled, or how recycling can save our streams. Students share their knowledge by organizing schoolwide recycling pep rallies featuring recycling games they develop. They organize school assemblies and create videos, theatrical performances, and rap songs about recycling procedures.
To determine the effectiveness of our outreach programs within our school, we conduct waste audits, analyzing data to see the percentage of recyclables and trash in correct bins. My students design educational activities for local fairs and festivals, teaching students why it’s important to understand where our waste goes and how to best manage it. They work with our communities to assess microplastic levels along our riverbank and launched a Spotify podcast, Waste in Our Waters. They also create and deliver presentations to our town councils and county commission because our ultimate goal is to create a countywide recycling network.
Our program is unique because there are both curricular and extracurricular components. Plastic pollution and waste management are only two units in the environmental science curriculum, so it’s challenging to dedicate the time to complete all the tasks for running a recycling program and addressing plastic pollution within a classroom. If we don’t complete our weekly requirements of collecting and sorting recyclables during class, which happens frequently due to teaching other content standards, then the after-school program picks up the slack. It takes seven to 10 students to stay on top of the recycling demands.
Transforming students into environmental leaders does not happen overnight. It requires time and intentional planning, but the outcomes are what we hope for as teachers: confident, engaged, and civically minded students.
Growing Student Environmental Leaders
Here are eight steps for creating environmental change makers. Although some of these features are standard in PBL, there is much more of an emphasis on building community relationships when using the apprenticeship model.
Make observations: Instruct students to record observations about the environment while walking around campus. Are there invasive species, sources of pollution, or suitable habitats for specific species?
Find patterns: Discuss patterns that emerge from your students’ observations. Record these ideas, and let students prioritize topics.
Identify community experts: Specialists may be found at museums, parks, and/or natural resource and environmental agencies. National Geographic’s Explorer Classroom and Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants YouTube channels connect classrooms to experts across the globe. The expert’s role is to extend the students’ background knowledge about the selected environmental issue. Ask students how they felt and what interested them after a session with an expert. Are there additional questions or ideas for solving their environmental issue?
Determine the environmental project: Tell students that local problems are often global problems, and instruct them to research ways that other organizations, states, and countries solve related environmental problems. Ask students to share what they learned. Are there feasible projects for the students to modify or replicate? Is there a stand-out project that clearly fits your students’ interests?
Identify stakeholders: Instruct students to brainstorm individuals and organizations in your community that have a vested interest in helping fix this environmental problem. Reach out to these stakeholders for help.
Create a step-by-step plan: Guide students through enumerating all actions required to complete their project. What materials do they need? What is the time frame for completing the project? Who can complete each task? Allow students to express their interests and self-select tasks.
Work alongside community mentors: While meeting with an expert provides environmental content knowledge, the mentor guides the students through tasks to complete the project. Sending a survey home to see if guardians have related skill sets and are willing to help out is a way to build connections with your students’ families.
Achieve goals: What are low-hanging fruits for the students to accomplish first to feel successful? Some projects take time, and their efforts may be the first steps toward a larger project. After a step from your plan is achieved, identify the next step, and create an associated goal within a realistic time frame. Celebrate your success as each goal is completed.
A Closer Look at Apprenticeships
The apprenticeship model helps intentionally build long-lasting mentorships with community partners and experts in the field in order to improve our program and student learning outcomes. In the beginning, our students secured community volunteers to help haul recyclables and worked alongside them to learn unloading procedures. My students began meeting with our neighboring county’s Solid Waste Authority’s director of education, taking tours of their large-scale recycling operations in order to learn the recycling ropes to create a sustainable operation in our county.
One of our students’ grandmothers became a board member of our county’s Solid Waste Authority, and she continues to work with our students biweekly to solve logistical problems and determine new outreach possibilities with our students. Other businesses, like Alpha Metallurgical Resources, reached out to us, and several students work directly with their environmental compliance manager to plan biannual Adopt-A-Highway litter clean-up events. Working alongside community members and experts in the field to solve a critical community issue nurtured my students’ leadership capabilities and confidence.
Creating a Lasting Legacy
Middle and high school students can develop ingenious solutions to problems such as air and water pollution, threatened species, and the lack of green space. At the same time, taking students outdoors jump-starts learning by awakening the senses and increasing connectedness and happiness. Through goal setting, hard work, and problem-solving, our recycling program grew and now serves as the only plastic recycling location in our entire county.
If a recycling program isn’t a good fit for your school, there are myriad other projects that students can pursue, such as doing a survey of microplastics or coming up with technological solutions to environmental challenges. Both the EPA’s Microplastic Beach Protocol for freshwater or marine waters and The Big Microplastic Survey provide citizen science opportunities for students to collect and report data, and Samsung’s Solve for Tomorrow gives students a chance to win classroom technology.
In our school, spin-off projects emerge each year as members develop new ideas and passions. The students involved with developing this program have left a long-lasting legacy in our rural southern West Virginia community. Other students at our school comment that they no longer litter because they think of our efforts. They know the consequences of plastic pollution and the differences between types of recyclables. Legacies like this are bigger than a singular lesson in our classrooms; they are ripples that transform students into leaders.