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Experts Weigh in on What Kids Can Do for Earth Day (and Beyond)

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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A female student is writing on a big piece of paper the words "Thermal," "Kinetic," "LED lights," and "USB port." The paper is divided into four sections, and each word has its own section.
Student teams came up with their own clean energy solutions during a design challenge.

In my last post, I shared stories of the student activists and innovators who took part in the recent Global Student Leaders Summit on the Future of Energy. The two-day event brought together 600 high school students in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Adult experts also took to the stage to encourage students to help create a clean energy future. Here are a few messages worth sharing just in time for Earth Day 2016.

Dr. Steven Chu, Nobel Laureate in Physics and Former Secretary of Energy for President Obama

"Kids get climate change," says Steven Chu, "more than many adults." The first scientist to ever hold a cabinet position, Chu (@stanfordenergy) suggests that young people are well-positioned to convince adults to take action on environmental issues. "Kids can do a lot to convince their parents and grandparents that this is a big deal. They can say, 'It's important to me.'" Using what he describes as "pressure from below," children have been successful at convincing their parents to quit smoking and protect them from secondhand smoke. The same strategy should persuade adults to consider the generational harm of climate change. Once voters are ready to act, he predicts, "politicians will respond to the voters."

Now a Stanford University professor, Chu encourages young people of diverse backgrounds to pursue advanced studies in STEM fields. "There will be opportunities for you," he promises, "if you're willing to work hard." To recruit more girls and youth from economically disadvantaged backgrounds into STEM, he sees a need for diverse role models, as well as practical career advice. While giving a campus tour to a group of undergraduates from historically black colleges, he was surprised to overhear students say they would never be able to afford graduate school at a place like Stanford. "I told them, you don't understand. If we accept you, we will pay for you. You get a stipend. Nobody had told them!"

Chu also knows that not every budding scientist follows the same career trajectory. He surprised students at the summit by admitting that he dropped out of ninth grade for a few months because he didn't want to compete with his high-achieving older brother. "My parents were distraught. I just stayed home and read books," he says, until he was ready to resume his high school career. Much later, after he had won the Nobel Prize in Physics, he shocked many of his scientific peers when he stepped away from his research to accept the invitation to be Secretary of Energy. "Scientists tend to think that politics is unsavory," he admits, "but my aim wasn't to use the cabinet as a stepping stone. I wanted to serve the country and the world. We have to have more [scientists] willing to do that."

Chu suggests that teachers leverage Earth Day "to bring more awareness to sustainability in general." But don't stop with one day. Using Earth Day as a kickoff event, teachers can introduce "science that captures people's attention," he says, perhaps for a lifetime.

William Kamkwamba, author of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

As a 14-year-old in rural Malawi, William Kamkwamba had to quit school when a drought devastated his family's farm. He turned to the local library to continue his studies and happened upon a book about energy that would change his life. Using a diagram as his guide, he managed to build a windmill to generate electricity out of bicycle parts and other scrap. Kamkwamba's inspiring story went viral when he was invited to give a TED talk. He shared his story again in an autobiography called, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

Now 28 and an engineering graduate of Dartmouth College, Kamkwamba offers a case study in persistence. He had to overcome a series of failures -- and endure skepticism from friends and family -- to make that first windmill work. His grandmother inspired him to keep trying. "She told me, when your jacket catches fire, you are the one who feels the heat. Don't wait for someone else to put it out," he recalls. "If you start working on a solution, then others will see your struggle and come along and help you. But if you never start, nobody will help. And you'll never know what the results might be."

His best strategy for innovation is to "combine a real problem with something you like doing." His favorite boyhood hobby was fixing radios, which developed problem-solving skills that helped him troubleshoot the windmill design. "Knowing that what you are doing isn't just a hobby, but can have great impact to your community, that gives you more reason to continue," he says.

For Earth Day, he encourages students to start working on small solutions rather than trying to tackle global issues. "Ask yourself, what's a simple thing that I can do in my community by myself? If everyone follows that simple step, you may have great impact," he says.

For students who are inspired to design energy solutions for the developing world, Kamkwamba offers a word of caution. "Before you try to come up with any solution, first get to know the people you want to work with," he says. "Don't look to serve them as if they are a problem. They will have a much better understanding of what the real problems are. As partners, you can work together to make better solutions."

Now living in North Carolina, Kamkwamba is bringing digital libraries to Africa through his work with the Wider Net Project. He continues to bring windmills to Malawai, but now his strategy is to teach villagers to build and maintain the projects themselves.

Jessica O. Matthews, Inventor of the Soccket and CEO of Uncharted Play

As a 19-year-old working on a class project at Harvard, Jessica Matthews dreamed up the Soccket, a soccer ball that doubles as a power source by capturing kinetic energy. It's an ideal product for bringing energy to the two billion people who live without electricity, she says, because "play is universal."

A decade later, Matthews continues to be an energy innovator as CEO of Uncharted Play. Along with the Soccket, her company produces a jump rope called the Pulse, which doubles as a portable battery charger. (You recharge it by jumping rope.) Matthews designed the product with girls in mind, especially those living in refugee camps who aren't allowed to play outdoors. By playing a simple game of Double Dutch, she says, "they can give power to their community."

As Matthews talked with summit attendees via Skype, she gave them a window into the mind of an innovator. Not content with one or two breakthrough products, she's now working to turn "everything that moves into a source of power." Everything from skateboards to shopping carts to door hinges will become a source of clean energy. "The core technology is shrinking," she says. Instead of our current macro power grid, she's imagining a wireless mesh energy network that will connect the micro-generated power of many small components.

Coming up with breakthrough solutions isn't for everyone. "It requires hustle," Matthews cautioned attendees. Persistence is also key. "My first prototype [for the Soccket] looked like crap," she admits. It wasn't until the fourth version "that we had a decent ball," and it took even more design work to get ready for production.

For students who are inspired to develop their own clean energy solutions this Earth Day, Matthews encourages designing for meaning, not just to invent something clever. Knowing the community for whom you are designing is also key. Matthews was inspired to invent the Soccket when she visited Nigeria, her parents' birthplace, and saw children playing soccer with balls made of trash. "You don't have to leave home to gain exposure to people," she adds. "It can happen on a bus ride."

What will your students be inspired to do this Earth Day? Please share your stories in the comments.

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janssen4's picture

A great Earth Day project for a Geography class could be to use Geocaching. (https://www.geocaching.com/play) Geocaching is a way for students to use maps and problem solve their way to finding an "objective". The students could pick up trash along the way to find this objective. The only place this project could take place is a small-school high school class due to the students having to roam around the community.

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