The Next Generation: How Students at Two Local High Schools Tackle Plastics Pollution
by Katy Dorchies, marketing & graphics specialist
If the early years of the plastics war had a mascot, it would have been bottled water. The early generation of environmentalists did their best to convince the public of the hazardous impacts of single-use plastic bottles; but the American obsession persisted. Now, plastic pollution affects waters everywhere, including Narragansett Bay. And, since plastic can take hundreds of years to break down, the burden of managing this problem will fall on the youngest among us today—which is why Save The Bay puts fostering the next generation of Bay stewards at the forefront of its education programs.
Getting them interested
“If you want kids to become involved in their community, they have to experience success in their attempts to make change,” said Kerry Tuttlebee, principal of 360 High School in Providence. “They need to see that being socially active can produce the changes they need. In order to do that, they need to be deeply engaged in the subject matter.”
When it comes to the sciences, however, even educators admit that achieving full student engagement can be difficult.“ Analyzing water and taking measurements? These activities can be dry,” admits 360 High School Science Teacher Ramiro Gonzalez. “But if students can see the ecosystems that are right in their backyard and learn why those places are important—all the commercial and recreational benefits—they can really start to understand the importance of the science.”
That’s where Save The Bay fits in. In 2016, 360 High School, as well as Woonsocket and Central Falls high schools, worked with Save The Bay to complete an application for a three-year Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) grant through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The proposed curriculum focused on uncovering the answer to the question: “How healthy is your local urban ecosystem?”
The grant was awarded in time for the 2017-18 academic year; the resulting course was named “Narragansett Bay Field Studies.” The class comprises hands-on activities and projects: field studies with Save The Bay, campus storm drain marking, habitat restoration, a civic action advocacy project, and an end-of-year ecosystem summit where the students presented their findings to fellow students. Throughout the school year, students made weekly visits to Save The Bay. They collected water samples. They examined local biodiversity and native vegetation. And they studied human impacts on the Bay—including the threat of plastics and microplastics.
360 High School takes on bottles
“At school, there are plastic bottles everywhere,” said Gonzalez. “The students don’t like drinking from the water fountains. They complain about the taste and the temperature.They’d rather buy water bottles from the vending machine.” Once students saw the damaging effects that plastics and microplastics have on oceans and marine life, however, they knew something had to change. (Plus, they were tired of wasting their money buying water.)
During college visits, 360 High School students and faculty began noticing water bottle filling stations on many of the campuses. The more they saw, the closer they got to choosing their “civic action” for the Field Studies course. Their goal: acquire a water bottle filling station for their school.
The desired fill station came with a $1,500 price tag. To make the case for it, students surveyed their schoolmates, prepared a petition and collected signatures. They held a mock town hall meeting at a school assembly, where they held a blind taste-test experiment to demonstrate the comparable qualities of filtered and bottled water and presented their proposal to replace an outdated school water fountain with a filling station.
The school then reached out to the Greenlove Foundation, a Rhode Island-based nonprofit with a focus on providing filling stations to parks and schools. After filing a proposal built upon the students’ collected data and research, 360 High School finally received the funding it was looking for. The 2018-19 school year will feature a brand new way for students at the school to stay hydrated—a way that doesn’t involve single-use plastics.
“Projects like these remind students to think of the hundreds, even thousands, of people in the future who will benefit from the changes they are making now,” remarked Tuttlebee. “When they start to see that the decisions they make extend into the future, kids can feel a true sense of ownership.”
Mt. Hope High Schools tackles utensils
Students at 360 High School aren’t alone in their endeavor to reduce plastic use and waste in their communities. In Bristol, the Mt. Hope High School Environmental Club—whose members have all been involved in Save The Bay’s field studies program, volunteer programs, or habitat restoration projects—are also fighting against single-use plastics. During the 2017-18 school year, the club took up a campaign to replace plastic utensils in their cafeteria with a more environmentally-friendly metal utensil system, an accomplishment that earned them Save The Bay’s 2018 Student of the Year award.
The students developed and presented a cost estimate for the change in the utensils and presented this information to the Budget/Facilities Subcommittee at its January meeting. The subcommittee approved the students’ proposal unanimously, praising the them for their research, factual presentation and stewardship. The Environmental Club then brought its presentation to the Bristol Town Council. With a recommendation from the subcommittee on the students’ side, the Town Council agreed to rid, not just the high school, but several district schools of single-use plastic utensils.
“Projects like these remind students to think of the hundreds, even thousands, of people in the future who will benefit from the changes they are making now. When they start to see that the decisions they make extend into the future, kids can feel a true sense of ownership.”
If student successes continue at this rate, it stands to reason that the future may very well be in good hands. Maybe the decades of excessive plastic use are finally coming to an end; maybe, if we continue to provide students with hands-on learning and engaging educational experiences, it can end with the next class of high school graduates.