Hand Dryers Versus Paper Towels


When sixth-graders were finishing a curriculum unit on climate change, they wanted to undertake a project that would reduce their carbon footprint and exercise their scientific inquiry skills. Students did the research and fundraising needed to replace bathroom towels with high-efficiency hand dryers that they calculated would reduce their school’s carbon dioxide emissions by 122.5 kilograms/year.

Students began with several team-building exercises, a review of the school’s past service-learning projects, and played the KIDS Consortium What Is It? Game. They developed group norms for how they would treat each other, and their teacher observed them carefully and provided feedback.


To determine how much energy the hand dryers might save, students consulted with students at a nearby high school who had written a successful grant proposal for more efficient dryers. They also contacted the Maine Energy Education Program, which helped teach students how to measure kilowatt-hours and read appliance plates. Students formed committees and focused on surveys, their timeline, paper towels, hand dryers and math – to gather data.


Students surveyed peers and interviewed custodians to determine current towel usage. They tried to analyze life cycle costs/emissions for both towels and dryers and compare their economic costs. This exercise helped meet Maine Learning Results involving scientific inquiry skills (such as using math to gather, organize and present data), and reinforced ecosystem concepts like the flow of matter and energy. Students ultimately chose a Dyson dryer that was more expensive but had a lower carbon output than the competing brand.

The presentation committee developed a PowerPoint to share research results with the school principal and district facilities manager. Following administrative approval, students still needed to raise additional funds for the purchase of two initial dryers. They submitted a successful grant application to cover this cost.


To inform the school community about the new dryers, the students made posters and displays, created flyers, wrote an article in the school newsletter, and drafted letters to their local newspaper. They created a comic book and presented a puppet show for students at area elementary schools and preschools. Through these communications, they reinforced their understanding of core curriculum concepts such as energy transformations and human impacts on the Earth.

Students were eager to follow-up with further research during the next school year, after the new dryers were installed. They planned methods for collecting data from custodians and students to determine how much paper towel use declined and whether students liked the new dryers.