Environmental Education

What Can Kids Do for Earth Day (and Beyond)?

If enough students are motivated to take action, there should be no shortage of human energy to tackle the environmental challenges ahead.

April 19, 2016
©Hero Images/500px

Earth Day 2016 celebrations are expected to engage more than a billion people in tree planting, community clean-ups, and other events around the world. This outpouring of activism won't solve all our environmental challenges, but it might motivate young people to keep working for a cleaner, greener planet.

For those wondering what to do next, consider these highlights from the recent Global Student Leaders Summit on the Future of Energy. The two-day event, organized by EF Educational Tours, drew some 600 high school students to Reykjavik, Iceland, a world leader in renewable energy. Against a stunning backdrop of glaciers, geysers, and other natural wonders, students shared their own stories of environmental action.

Related: An impressive roster of adults took the stage, as well. My next post will include Earth Day messages from Steven Chu, Nobel Laureate and former Secretary of Energy; William Kamkwamba, author of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind; and Jessica O. Matthews, inventor of the Soccket.

Tinkering for a Better World

When Ann Makosinski was 15, she learned that a friend in the Philippines lacked electricity to study at night. Makosinski (@annmakosinski) has been a tinkerer since her childhood in British Columbia, Canada, where she grew up making her own toys with transistors and soldering irons. Leveraging her ingenuity to solve her friend's problem, she invented a flashlight that's powered by heat from the human hand. (Read about her winning entry in the Google Science Fair.)

Makosinski, now a college freshman, advises other would-be innovators not to be overwhelmed by the world's biggest challenges. "Think about one person's problem," she says. "What can you do to help them? That's a more realistic approach." She continues to use that strategy to invent energy-harvesting products. Her latest: the eDrink, a coffee mug that captures heat from a cooling beverage to charge a cell phone or other small device.

Makosinski's Earth Day challenge to youth and teachers is to embrace makerspaces, science fairs, and the arts to unleash student innovation. "Tinkering spaces are so necessary to explore our creative side," she says, and also to learn that "things won't always work on the first try." As makerspaces become more common in schools, she cautions her peers "not to take these valuable resources for granted. Use them to come up with solutions to help others." Her own school didn't have a makerspace until after she graduated. She was invited back to consult on what it should include.

"You Can't Ignore Us"

Alex Loznak, a freshman at Columbia University, and Victoria Barrett, a high school junior at Notre Dame School of Manhattan in New York, aren't waiting for adults to take action on climate change. They're among the 21 plaintiffs who are suing the federal government and President Obama to force the adoption of a science-based national climate recovery plan.

"We're making history," says Barrett. Regardless of the outcome of the case, she adds, "we're showing that youth can take action." Most of the plaintiffs are too young to vote, "but we're doing something that government can't ignore." Industry seems to be taking them seriously, as well. Trade groups representing the fossil fuel industry have petitioned to join as defendants.

Loznak, who was homeschooled before attending Roseburg High School in Oregon, says his concerns about climate change began at age nine when he saw An Inconvenient Truth. "I started changing the lightbulbs around the house. Then I read and learned more on my own." In high school, he campaigned to put solar panels on the school roof. He turned to experts for advice, including a local solar company. "I learned so much -- about economics, how to conduct myself in a business setting, public speaking -- simply because I took an interest. That kind of learning isn't taught enough in school," he adds.

Short of suing the government, young people can pursue a wide range of initiatives to make a difference on climate change, Barrett says. "Do work that you feel good about. Use your skills and interests, whether that's art, music, or writing blogs. Climate change spans so many issues, from income inequality to environmental racism. Be forceful in a positive way," she says, "and you'll learn so much -- about yourself and the global society around you."

Our Children's Trust, a nonprofit organization that filed the federal lawsuit, promotes a range of youth initiatives on climate change that extend beyond the courthouse. For example, Youth Climate Action Now is a civic engagement project in which students advocate for local environmental policies, such as reducing carbon emissions at the city level.

Barrett says her environmental activism has helped her find her voice as a public speaker. She is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly on Earth Day as global leaders gather to sign the Paris Climate Agreement.

Designing a Better Future

When they weren't listening to provocative speakers, students attending the Global Student Leaders Summit worked in teams to design their own future-of-energy solutions. Participants included students from both the U.S. and Iceland, adding cross-cultural perspective to the design thinking exercise. Their ideas ranged from the Power Nap, a mattress pad-like device that captures thermal and kinetic energy while a person is sleeping, to a dome that removes methane gas generated by cows. Two solutions -- one chosen by judges and the other by popular vote -- will be on display this summer at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, Sweden.

After exploring Iceland's stunning scenery, students came away impressed by Icelanders' pride and stewardship of their environment. Litter was nowhere to be seen. Renewable energy was abundant and inexpensive, powering everything from greenhouses for growing fresh produce year-round to data storage warehouses. At the Blue Lagoon, a popular tourist stop, students took a soak in (clean) wastewater from a geothermal plant. With a population of only 330,000, Iceland is showing the world how to retool its economy around clean energy.

"Could this work on a larger scale?" pondered Ignacio Roitman, one of 10 students attending the summit from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School in Massachusetts. They earned the trip to Iceland by developing local energy-saving ideas for a competition called the Glocal Challenge. Roitman and his classmates will have a chance to put their prototypes into action this summer when they will be paid interns for the City of Cambridge.

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  • Curriculum Planning
  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • 6-8 Middle School
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