Empowering Students to Change the World

  • Lower School

How can we empower students to believe they can change the world? That was the question third grade teachers Nan Conroy and Paula DeWitt asked themselves as they worked with science teacher Meredith Marcum and maker tech coordinator Carol Mahoney to create a new interdisciplinary unit on the problem of single-use plastics.

This on-going and multi-pronged project began in Science class where students learned about the problem of single-use plastics and their deleterious effects on plants, animals and the Earth’s oceans. The third graders studied how ocean currents called “gyres” trap and accumulate trash forming a toxic soup and interviewed Dr. Marissa Jablonski, an ocean plastics expert and engineer, via Skype. Students even toured the Millersville Landfill to see the process of filling a landfill firsthand. Taking what they learned, they created infographics with hard facts such as the likelihood that by the year 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. 

In Language Arts, students began reading about kids from all around the world who are making a positive change in their own communities. One example is 11-year-old Maiken Hamaluba of Botswana who was worried about desertification in her country and began a campaign to plant one million trees throughout Africa. More than ten thousand trees have been planted since her campaign began. Another child making a difference is Olivia Bouler in the United States who worried about birds dying after an oil spill. She wrote a book to raise funds for the Audubon Society. 

In Maker Tech, students color-coded, compiled and hung a huge National Geographic wall map of the world in the hallway between the two 3rd grade classrooms. On it, they pinpointed the hometowns of Maiken Hamaluba, Olivia Bouler and five other students they were researching.  They also learned about different types of social media and, teaming up with Key’s Communication Office, have begun their own Twitter campaign to share their knowledge about single-use plastics and ways to reduce its use.

To bring awareness about the dangers of single-use plastics to the wider community, the third grades took a  Single-Use Plastics Pledge on one way they each will be reducing their own use of single-use plastics. During the new year, they will be asking members of the Key community to take and share their own Single-Use Plastics Pledge‒watch for more on this coming in January! 

The students are also writing and taping original collaborative skits on reducing the use of one of several types of single-use plastics as PSAs; these mini-movies will be shared with the entire third grade.

The impetus for the new unit started with a $5,000 environmental education grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which will fund the installation of an environmental sculpture near the Amphitheater. The six-foot-long metal sculpture of a Diamondback Terrapin will serve as a trash receptacle for plastics and will be the featured attraction on campus during Earth Week in April.

The development of the unit was guided by the maker-tech empowerment framework out of Agency by Design, a research initiative at Harvard University’s Project Zero. Nine educators and administrators from Key took the Thinking and Learning in the Maker-Centered Classroom course with the goal of helping children feel empowered to build and shape their worlds. Key’s third graders are learning to look closely at systems, explore their complexity and find opportunities to improve upon them as they work on the worthy pursuit of reducing the amount of single-use plastics going into landfills and, most importantly, the world’s waters.