TOWER — As students at Vermilion Country School enjoy the summer, they will do so with a keen eye on the environment, making sure to find evidence of something they once would have taken for granted — plastics.
As the school year drew to a close, activity increased at the Tower Charter School as six groups of students, grades seven through 12, made final preparations for their Spring Expo. , the culmination of a learning project that this year was inspired by a member community.
“The reason we offered plastics is because on Earth Day, Pat Helmberger came with plastic bags and did a presentation for us, and the kids were really, really interested,” said Karin Schmidt, counselor in training. “We decided to really focus on that, and we kept it open so they could choose what they like to do.”
This was the second Expo project completed by the students this year, both designed for them to investigate and learn specific areas of environmental education. The first focused on their activities in the greenhouses, learning where the food came from.
“Then they had to give a presentation about a particular type of food and the environmental concerns that come with it,” Schmidt said. “They did individual projects the first time, and this time we are doing group projects.
Each group researched online to focus on the waste and hazards created by single-use plastics, those that are not easily recyclable. They had to describe the scale of the problem and suggest other possible uses for it, then illustrate them by creating billboards with the information, images and graphics. They also created physical samples of alternative uses, such as cutting bottles out of planters and making ropes by weaving plastic bags together, and more.
June 2 was Expo Day. Schmidt and learning advisors Paula Herbranson and Allan White were joined by other staff and members of the local community to put the students through their paces.
“We assess what they know and how they learned it through an interview process,” Schmidt explained. “It’s very different from a traditional assessment process.”
Working individually and in pairs, the adults spread out around the room, spending 10-15 minutes with each group listening to their presentations and asking questions. Some questions were straightforward, while others forced students to take what they had learned and go deeper by hypothesizing possible actions or outcomes, including how to advocate for change.
“It’s the highest, to make a change and do something for your community,” Schmidt said. “When we ask these questions of children, they need to think outside the box rather than just what they can do, but how they can extend it to the community.”
While their research was thematically similar and their exhibits had common elements, each exhibit and presentation featured something unique. A group has created a tropical island with sand, a creative palm tree made from plastic, and its shores submerged in plastic waste. Another used plastic bags extensively as a base for the exhibit and had a plastic skipping rope ready for demonstrations. The illustrations ranged from basic images of single-use plastics like water bottles to thought-provoking photos of negative environmental impacts on nature.
One assessor who was particularly impressed with the students’ work was Helmberger.
“I was totally amazed by the work done by the children. Some of these kids are really innovative with their ideas,” she said. “I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I kind of was because they were so excited about their plans. There are some real creative ideas here.
Helmberger was also encouraged by the dominant attitude she discovered as she walked around the room.
“I saw a positivity in these kids that really surprised me,” she said. “A kid said to me, ‘Since you came here, I’ve noticed more and more plastic in the community, and it makes me want to do more.'”
The group project also drew on community service experiences and incorporated other college learnings the students had throughout the year, Schmidt said.
“So that’s the culmination of everything,” she said. “I think it was a good successful exhibition.”