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Next Generation Environmental Leaders Projects

Students examine a plant in Muir Woods National Monument.

Photograph by Patricia Norris

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The How Low Can You Go Challenge

Hollywood, Florida

We all know we should cut back our energy consumption to conserve resources and reduce CO2 emissions. But how do we actually do it? Driftwood Middle School in Hollywood, Florida, has an answer. In 2008, the school formed an Energy Green Team, dubbed “the DMS Chillers,” that has led the way to remarkable results.

How It Works

Local experts teach the DMS Chillers where to find relevant energy data for the school and how to perform energy audits. The team meets weekly to gather data and perform energy audits, which are left on teachers’ desks along with suggestions to help each classroom reduce its energy consumption and be more efficient. Each month the team publicly posts data on the school’s energy usage so the whole school can see its progress. To further engage the school community, the team also creates public service announcements based on the data.

The Impact

Students, teachers and administrators are now acutely aware of how energy saving changes can add up. Between 2012 and 2016, with 128 schools participating, schools saved $304,596 in energy costs and reduced energy usage by a whopping 3,014,916 kWh. Easy to replicate and adapt to any school or business setting, the program has expanded to school systems throughout Florida and next year, universities from across the country will participate.

Looking for More?

http://https://www.climate.gov/teaching/climate-youth-engagement/case-studies/how-low-can-you-go-challenge-energy-efficiency


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Big Thompson River Recovery Rangers

Loveland, Colorado

When a massive flood tore through the historic Sylvan Dale Ranch in Northern Colorado in 2013, it destroyed buildings and dramatically transformed the surrounding landscape. To document the recovery of the flood zone, the Heart J Center for Experiential Learning partnered with local elementary and middle school students to create the River Recovery Rangers.

How It Works

Students observe the landscape as it changes, using the scientific method and tools such as photography, GIS mapping, and oral histories from flood witnesses to record the transformation. Local experts from state and federal agencies, as well as Colorado State University and University of Northern Colorado, serve as mentors to students as they learn about river ecology, geomorphology, flood geology, and landscape restoration surveys and techniques.

The Impact

Students have the opportunity to apply classroom principles in a hands-on, real-world situation and to collaborate on the larger outcome of creating an understanding of the changing river system over time. Data gathered will inform the work of the Big Thompson River Restoration Coalition as it restores the river for wildlife habitat and public safety.

Looking for More?

http://www.heartjcenter.org/river-recovery-rangers.html


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This Is Our Housatonic River

Pittsfield, Massachusetts

In Pittsfield, MA, the Housatonic River is well known but not necessarily well loved. For many, it’s just a site of industrial pollution and garbage dumping. For students with the river literally in their backyard, it’s a nuisance, causing damaging flooding. But the river has a rich history and important role to the play in the town. Through this program, students learn and share that story.

What They Do

To foster greater respect for the river, the Student Resource Center developed a program that encourages 9th, 10th, and 11th graders to learn more about the river and communicate their discoveries through the development of public service announcements (PSAs). Written, directed and filmed by students, the PSAs advocate for river stewardship, particularly among Pittsfield’s teens. The goal is for Pittsfield’s community television station to air the PSAs.

The Impact

The students developed a deeper understanding of the river’s role in Pittsfield’s literary, ecological, and industrial history. Now they see the waterway as a vital resource to protect and cherish. That message will be shared with the community when the PSAs air. In addition, students made connections with other local organizations working to protect community resources, such as the park and environmental agencies in the city.

Find more details here.


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Sunken Meadow Creek Restoration Project

Ronkonkoma, New York

In 2012, tidal flow was restored to Sunken Meadow Creek on Long Island. Sachem North High School seized the opportunity to study the restoration of 132 acres of estuary habitat. They developed an exciting program that gives students a memorable, hands-on learning experience focused on the ecological importance of estuaries.

How They Do It

AP Environmental Science and NCF-Envirothon students collected baseline data prior to the restoration of the tidal flow and continue to monitor the chemical, physical, and biological changes each year. They work with experts from government and non-profit organizations, such as Save the Sound, Long Island Sound Study, and New York State Office of Parks. The students’ data contribute to decisions about how to care for the estuary. For example, when students measured elevated nitrate levels in the water, Spartina (a type of grass frequently found in coastal salt marshes) was planted to help filter out nitrates and provide better habitat and flood protection.

The Impact

Involving students in this authentic case study helps them better understand and retain knowledge, as well as take ownership and responsibility for local natural areas. These students are much more likely to continue environmental stewardship, advocacy, and scientific research in the future.

Looking for More?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jkQmZIpxnrY


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Omaha Northwest High School Rain Garden

Omaha, Nebraska

Hundreds of communities nationwide need to reduce their combined sewer system overflows to improve water quality in receiving streams and local watersheds. When Omaha Northwest High School learned their city was one of those communities, they took action to devise a way to collect storm water runoff from their campus.

How It Works

Advanced horticultural students in grades 10, 11, and 12 engineered and built a rain garden. Lined with permeable pavement, the garden is filled with pollinator and native plants that not only filter out pollutants from the storm water but also create a habitat for declining monarch butterfly and bee species. Visitors can scan QR codes on signs and find information about the purpose of the infrastructure and the plant species. Students are involved in ongoing research to evaluate regional rain garden environmental conditions, functional attributes, and plant wellness.

The Impact

As they built the rain garden, students experienced firsthand how science research is implemented by engineering the garden and developing research questions to test the efficacy of their designs. Their experience is inspiring other schools and local businesses to create their own rain gardens to collect storm water runoff and improve the city’s water quality.

Looking for More?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHOKpzwHT5I&feature=youtu.be


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Wolves Helping African Painted Dogs

Orlando, Florida

The critically endangered African painted dog is among the least understood animal species in Africa. After meeting Dr. Greg Rasmussen, one of Zimbabwe’s biggest advocates of the dogs, ninth-grade students at Timber Creek High School wanted to get involved and help protect this species. Their interest was further piqued when they learned the African name for the dogs actually translates to “Painted Wolf.” Why? The school’s mascot is the wolf.

What They Do

The students study evolution, particularly genetic bottlenecks, as well as conservation and see how the topics relate to the African painted dog. Now they are working to design activities to raise funds and awareness for the dogs. These activities, geared particularly to kids, will be shared with members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums who will host events all over the country.

The Impact

Connecting class lessons on conservation and evolution to the plight of the African painted dog brings the material to life for the students. Studies of this species also make it clear how interconnected environmental issues are. Students have expressed their excitement to know their efforts to raise awareness of this species’ could have impacts far from home. Many have noted that they now realize their small actions can have a much greater reach than they envisioned.


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Water Is Life!

Asheville, North Carolina

Eighth graders at The Franklin School of Innovation, a public charter school, are focused on water and the crucial role it has played in the development of communities throughout history. As part of their studies, they are investigating a local waterway, Hominy Creek, to determine if it can support aquatic life and to gauge the safety and potability of creek water.

How They Do It

Students collect data on pH, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, nitrates, and phosphates in Hominy Creek. Their data is summarized in lab reports annually and shared with environmental groups working to improve water quality throughout the region. They also created a water quality index that will be used for the next decade to evaluate the health of Hominy Creek.

The Impact

Students reflected that they have a fundamental understanding of why it is important for scientists to be critical and innovative thinkers, as well as how authentic inquiry leads to new discoveries and potential solutions to problems. The program’s ongoing effort to monitor water quality ensures future classes will build on what has already been accomplished and continue advocating for water quality.

Looking for More?

http://http://www.franklinschoolofinnovation.org/single-post/2016/05/15/Water-Is-Life-Celebration-of-Learning-to-include-Hominy-Creek-Cleanup


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Stewards of Our Watershed

Northeast Harbor, Maine

Mountains, fresh water, forests, and the sea—Mount Desert Island, ME, home to much of Acadia National Park, has them all. Like many places, the environment here is under stress and the watersheds are constantly changing. For 15 years, students at Mount Desert Elementary School have kept a close eye on the changes to protect and preserve their local environment.

How They Do It

Each year, students in grades 7 and 8 tackle issues such as the impact of invasive species, fish population studies, phytoplankton monitoring, and clam and worm population studies. They devise questions and discuss ways to discover the answers. Then they go out in the field and put their ideas in action. In the process, the students learn data collection methodologies, analysis strategies, and ways to share findings.

The Impact

The students are conducting real scientific research that is particularly meaningful because it is focused on where they live. They share what they learn with decision makers, such as the Maine Department of Marine Resources and Acadia National Park, making the work even more valuable. Along the way they develop stewardship skills and an appreciation for the fragility and interdependence of all parts of the ecosystem.


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Pierce Park Ravine Restoration

Appleton, Wisconsin

“Making the world a better place, little by little.” That’s how a 6th-grader from Fox River Academy Environmental Charter School describes students’ efforts to restore a 5-acre wildlife area near her school. Since 2011, the middle school has worked with the City of Appleton, WI, and other community partners to improve Pierce Park Ravine, a valuable wildlife area in the Fox River watershed.

How They Do It

Students worked with local experts to develop a management plan for the area, coordinate restoration activities, and learn about the geologic and local history of the property. Once a week—rain, snow, or shine—students head to the park for a few hours and get to work. Activities include removing invasive species, planting native species, improving habitat areas for cliff swallows and bats, developing trails, cleaning up garbage, and identifying and documenting species.

The Impact

The Ravine has become an outdoor lab for many subjects, not just science. Teachers have noticed that the students demonstrate a greater appreciation for how humans interact with and depend on nature and resources. And the students see their work paying off as native species take root and more community members come to enjoy the hiking the trails.

Looking for More?

http://www.wisconservation.org/outdoor-lab-city-ravines/


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Citizen Science and the "Bosque" Riparian Forest

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Students at Amy Biehl High School in Albuquerque have a unique outdoor classroom right in their city. The “Bosque,” a riparian forest associated with the Rio Grande, is a large natural habitat running through the urban environment. To learn about this special area and educate others about the forest’s health and importance, students work with the Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program (BEMP), a citizen science organization that has been active in the community for twenty years.

What They Do

Opportunities begin in ninth grade with the Freshman Learning Experience, in which students join experts to record phenological changes of Cottonwood trees and collect water quality data in the Bosque. Chances to participate as citizen scientists continue through students’ senior year, culminating in capstone service projects in which seniors work with BEMP as educators, data collectors, and artist activists.

The Impact

Through the program students learn vital data collection skills and develop a deep understanding of the ecosystem that bisects their city. They work with University of New Mexico biologists, Intel engineers, local educators, genetic analysts, state and local politicians, and land managers to share data and ensure decision makers are able to make well-informed environmental decisions.


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Berms and Swales: A Water Conservation Initiative

Pasadena, California

Adopting effective strategies for water conservation is important everywhere, but particularly in drought-stricken areas like Southern California. Seventh-graders at New Horizon School in Pasadena are learning firsthand how to use a centuries-old technique—berms and swales—to effectively conserve this precious resource in the school’s new Peace Garden.

How It Works

With guidance from local expert biologists and gardeners, students constructed bio-swales and berms in the school’s garden using cardboard, newspaper, mulch, rocks, and soil. The system collects and infiltrates rainwater to create high-moisture microclimates, useful for growing a wide range of perennial and annual plants. A shallow pond in the middle of the garden provides a habitat for aquatic life. When it rains, the pond water overflows into a mulched dry basin (the swale). On the berms (raised beds that direct water to the swale), students planted California native plants and herbs.

The Impact

Through this hands-on experience, the seventh-graders have learned key concepts related to water harvesting, which will encourage a life-long appreciation for this valuable resource. In addition, they have learned about gardening techniques, including native versus hybrid plant species, companion planting, and improving soil health.

Looking for More?

Click here for more details


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Climate Change: Empowering Education

Fort Collins, Colorado

What happens when you teach high school students about climate change then give them the opportunity to share what they’ve learned with a class of fourth-graders? Empowered education! No Barriers USA developed this out-of-classroom program to provide experiential learning to high schoolers then give them a chance to be the teachers.

How It Works

High school students are brought to a local natural area for a three-day retreat. Guided by experts, including National Park Service rangers and university scholars, the students learn how climate change is impacting the area via hands-on projects and interactions with the ecosystem. On the final day of the retreat, the high school students share their new knowledge with visiting fourth-graders from a local elementary school. After the retreat, all of the students work with their teachers to take what they learned and apply it to a service-learning project in their community.

The Impact

This place-based program gives high school students the chance to be leaders, teachers, and scientists, increasing their confidence and enhancing their scientific skills. The fourth graders get the opportunity to learn from their peers in an immersive educational experience in a beautiful natural setting.


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Miami Waterkeeper Junior Ambassadors Program

Miami, Florida

Clean water is a growing concern at local, national, and global levels. Miami Waterkeeper created the Junior Ambassadors Program to provide local middle and high school students with the skills and leadership experience necessary for them to advocate for clean water for decades to come.

How It Works

The program teaches students about the ecology of Biscayne Bay and the importance of clean water, then offers tools to help these Junior Waterkeeper Ambassadors effectively engage the public. Two local experts—a marine biologist and a climate impacts scientist—guide the students. The students learn to prepare presentations and host outreach events for their peers and families, sharing what they have learned.

The Impact

The program’s community outreach activities raise awareness of the importance of clean water and strategies to address the declining health of local waterways. The young people who serve as Junior Waterkeeper Ambassadors are prepared to be environmental stewards advocating for clean water throughout their lifetimes.

Looking for More? 

Click here for more details.


Picture of the sign for the Edgewood School Forest in Mounds View, Minn.

Conservation and a Certified School Forest

Mounds View, Minnesota

In 2014 students at Edgewood Middle School embarked on a mission: get the 15-acre wooded area on their school grounds certified as Minnesota’s 125th School Forest. The Minnesota School Forest Program, started in 1949 and led by the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), encourages schools to create a place for outdoor education in exchange for support with forest management and other aspects of environmental stewardship.

How It Works

Students in grades 6, 7, and 8 researched and completed all the paperwork for the application. They created a trail system and boundaries using GPS technology, helped design an outdoor classroom area, and conducted outreach to local authorities, such as the City Council and the School Board, to secure necessary permissions. Now successfully certified, they work with the DNR on the continuing maintenance plan for the area. They partner with other schools and groups to maintain the trails and increase the area's sustainability per the plan.

The Impact

Students are entrusted with the ongoing responsibility of caring for and enhancing a unique education resource right on their campus. The forest has been used by students across the district for diverse purposes ranging from an outdoor laboratory to a physical education space.

Looking for more?

Click here for more details.