There were more than five hundred students representing schools from Alexandria City, Arlington, Fairfax County, Falls Church, Loudoun County and Prince William County at the 2016 School Environmental Action Showcase (SEAS), co-hosted by NoVA Outside and George Mason University and making its fifth appearance on GMU’s Fairfax campus, in the Center for the Arts building. Even in that sea of young people, the sheer numbers wearing burgundy T-shirts with “Caring For Our Watersheds” emblazoned on the fronts, made the 5-team strong contingent from Lanier Middle School in Fairfax a real standout in the crowd.
THE SEAS EVENT is all about giving young people the opportunity to celebrate the work that they are doing in their schools and in their communities to positively affect the environment. The lobby of the Center was filled with colorful informational booths and demonstrations designed and staffed by the students, providing details and illustrating the projects that each group undertook in their environmental stewardship journey. So far, so typical, you might say. Ah, but wait. In addition to the static exhibition of their work, each team also made a 5-minute presentation to their fellow attendees, teachers, parents, and a panel of judges from up on stage in the auditorium, since many of them were participating in one of two competitions – “Caring for Our Watersheds” and KidWind - that are part of the showcase proceedings.
Lanier’s “Ban the Bottle Part 2” team was there in hopes that their efforts would earn them a prize in the “Caring for our Watersheds” competition and funding toward their mission to end the use of plastic water bottles in their school. Eighth-graders Ryan Phillips and Keivon Chamanara were part of last year’s “Part 1” team who used their second place finish to help purchase water filling stations for the school’s lower level. With the addition of fellow eighth-grader Mariam Schfik, the “Part 2” trio have been continuing the efforts and are working to fund additional water filling stations on the upper level at Lanier. “We’ve made a good start,” said Ryan, “but we found that most of the plastic bottle waste is coming from the upper level. The students and staff don’t have the time to come down and fill up downstairs, so we need to bring the stations to them and keep all of that plastic out of our landfills and watersheds.” The “Ban the Bottle” gang are also raising funds by selling non-plastic reusable water bottles at school functions. “It’s extra encouragement,” said Mariam. The youngsters also hope that the “Caring for our Watersheds” logo on the bottles will help remind the community at large that our over usage of plastic is harmful to our world.
The “Caring for our Watersheds” competition (sponsored by agricultural company Agrium) is a program of Earth Force, an international nonprofit whose mission is to engage young people to “play a central role in building environmentally resilient communities.” Kristen Mueller, spokesperson with the organization, notes that through their network of partners, the young people get “hands-on, real-world opportunities to practice civic skills, acquire a deep understanding of the environments and develop skills…to become lifelong leaders in addressing community issues. Earth Force uses a Community Action and Problem-Solving Process.” That means that those young competitors had to follow a six-step instructional model, taking them from building team work and community, a community environmental inventory, issue selection, planning, budgeting, implementation, going public, and planning for the future. That checklist made for some very admirable and thought-provoking presentations.
So, how did Lanier Middle School wind up with so many students participating in this obviously challenging activity? Many of the students, and the parents present at the event that we polled, pointed to one major factor; Lanier Science, Math, Special Ed teacher, and Eco-Club leader, Faiza Alam.
Alam leads 30-40 students twice a week in eco-friendly projects. Their crowning achievement is probably their maintenance of the school’s courtyard, built during facility renovations. “It was pretty much a landfill when they finished, so I said ‘Give it to me!’” laughed Alam. With her Eco-Club volunteers, they started from scratch. “It was, and is, a real hands-on learning experience.” Pollinator and vegetable gardens and other eco-happy spaces now define the once “useless” space – all maintained by the students with by-their-sides assistance from Alam.
THE HARD WORK and the passion for their projects paid off for the Lanier students. Seventh-graders Nadia Wilborne, Lila Stern and Sabina Nguyen were awarded first place and $1,000 for their “Classes Planting Grasses” project. All five teams placed in the winning Top Ten, even with some stiff competition from the impressive works by other schools. “Ban the Bottle Part 2” went home with a third place and another $800 towards their goals.
For more information about getting young people involved in environmental sustainability and improvement projects with resources for kids, parents, educators and communities, check out www.earthforce.org and www.novaoutside.org.