This piece originally appeared on the Sustainable Woodstock Blog.
There’s a group of thirty or so students at Woodstock Union High School who are perpetually examining everyday objects and habits. They cast analytic eyes on ordinary things like banana peels, light bulbs, and dripping facets. As members of the school’s Earth Beat club, they’re having fun while introducing environmentally kind changes into school routines. Part of what they’ve learned over the last several years is that small ideas can reap significant benefits.
The school’s composting system, for example, is the product of Earth Beat’s work. Bins in hallways, classrooms, and cafeterias collect apple cores, orange peels and the like. They feed four student-constructed compartments lined up out back, where the organic waste is enriched and aged until it is ripe enough to fertilize the school’s gardens.
The structure of the club is the antithesis of autocracy; there’s no electing officers or pursuing directives handed down by teachers or staff. At the beginning of each school year, kids interested in Earth Beat meet to develop short and long term plans. Ideas bubble up from the members themselves. Students most committed to particular ideas step forward to lead their implementation.
But its grassroots style doesn’t mean that Earth Beat is disorganized. The club convenes regularly on Fridays; every meeting has an agenda and kicks off with project updates. The bulk of meeting time is spent in groups, with members working on current initiatives. Advisors are hands-off; all the researching, analyzing, proposing, persuading and doing is left to students.
Science teacher Vanessa Cramer advises the club. She’s filling in until ongoing advisor, Kat Robbins, returns from maternity leave. Sophmore Erica Kurash develops agendas and chairs meetings. Freshman Issy Hiller, junior Oliver Wilson, and senior Claire Saunders head committees working on the highest priority projects. Current focus is on creating turn-out-the-lights reminder signs, collecting and reusing scrap paper, and installing timers on electronic device charging stations to minimize electricity drain.
The Earth Beats are learning more than just how to calculate carbon footprint or to measure conservation benefits. By working with administrators, school board members, donors and outside organizations, they internalize the value of collaboration, long-term relationship-building, and tenacity.
Last year’s initiative to reduce waste by introducing a bulk milk machine into the lunch routine is a good example. An audit by the school’s National Honor Society pointed to empty milk cartons as a significant source of trash, about 55 gallons every day, because the wax-coated insides of the containers mean they can’t be recycled. The Earth Beats found inspiration at the Woodstock Elementary School, which had already eliminated cartons. “We discussed with them the options and how it worked and what the issues were for the cafeteria workers,” says Earth Beat member Kurash, “and we found a model that would work for us.”
Identifying a problem and proposing a solution was the easier part of the project. Following up deciding with doing was more of a challenge.
First, there was the funding. Club members fortunately have schooled themselves in the art of writing grant applications. Their on-going relationship with the Hartford Transfer/Recycling Center boosted their credibility in a request for money, and the Center donated $300.
The balance of the $1,600 needed to purchase a milk chiller/dispenser and reusable cups came from a fundraiser. On a November Saturday last year, the Earth Beats set up a borrowed wood-fired oven on the Woodstock Green and sold pizzas. “It was really fun and super successful,” says Kurash.
With funding in hand, attention turned to other issues. There was some back-and-forth between the Earth Beats and their preferred local vendor, Thomas Dairy, about chocolate milk. The National School Lunch Program requires that flavored milk be fat free, but Thomas didn’t seem to offer skim chocolate milk. And, ordering in bulk from a local vendor meant convincing cafeteria staff to alter replenishment procedures.
Then there were the cups! They had to hold at least 8 ounces, but the Earth Beats decided on 9 ounces to minimize spillage. It took considerable research to find economical purchase quantities for that relatively odd-sized cup.
After several months of persuasion and problem solving, the project concluded with students drinking locally produced milk, both white and chocolate, that arrives in big plastic bags and is dispensed from a chiller into cups that ultimately go to the dishwasher, not the trash bin.
It’s been such a success that on November 2, a dozen Earth Beats will head up to a Youth Environmental Summit in Barre to talk with other high schoolers about making sustainability projects happen.
Advisor Robbins, who is also the school’s Place-Based Education Co-ordinator, says that working with Earth Beat is a joy. “These kids keep showing up, week after week, with incredible optimism and dedication,” she says. “They inspire me.”