After learning that their school sent 35,000 polystyrene (i.e., Styrofoam™) lunch trays each year to the local landfill, students decided to engage in a service-learning project that would address this concern. The project fit well with a * Maine Learning Standard for their grade that “students select, plan, and implement a civic action or service- learning project based on a school, community, or State asset or need, and analyze the project’s effectiveness and civic contribution.” This project drew heavily on STEM skills as students conducted research, graphed cost comparisons, and learned more about ecological cycles.
Their teacher introduced service-learning through KIDS Consortium’s What Is It? Game and discussed the differences between community service and service learning. The class then toured the local recycling center, and joined in a “recycling scavenger hunt” (bringing in recyclable items from their homes). These experiences made a strong impression on students, helping them understand core concepts from their curriculum like human impacts of resource consumption.
Students narrowed their focus on two potential projects: 1) increasing paper recycling at school or, 2) replacing the polystyrene lunch trays. They voted for the lunch tray project and set up interviews with the head cook and Food Services Director.
To keep track of progress and help with accountability, the teacher posted charts listing tasks and students responsible. By working in small groups, students learned communication and collaboration skills. Photos of their work sessions were posted inside and outside the classroom so students got recognition for their efforts from others in the school (and from parents at school conference time). And the local newspaper published articles on their project.
Through online research and e-mail exchanges with a community partner and polystyrene recycler, students learned that the current lunch trays would need to be cleaned and shipped for recycling. Students concluded that it would be more economical and ecological to purchase reusable trays (which could fit into the existing dishwasher). They further exercised their math skills, determining numbers needed and comparing tray costs, before making a PowerPoint presentation to their Principal. Using their math analysis to make a convincing case the purchase of trays was approved!
Students educated their peers about the new trays and the importance of not inadvertently discarding them. They created posters, a poem for the school’s morning announcements, and a “Plastic Man” character to remind students in the tray return area. Using English Language Arts standards, their teacher created a score sheet to assess students on there speaking and writing during this phase of the project.