What is Waste and Where is Away?

This is our claim:


These are the school wide learning targets that students focused on in this investigation:

These are the classroom targets:

  • I can trace the path of the waste water, recycling, compost and municipal solid waste streams that leave the school, and explain the natural, technological and scientific processes involved in each of our community's waste management systems.
  • I can describe the carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle and water cycle and make connections between the 3 that helps me to recognize the interacting nature of the earth’s four major systems: the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere.
  • I can create a pattern for an upcycled, reusable shopping bag, shaped like a rectangular prism, and calculate its surface area and volume.
  • I can create and support arguments (by referring to specific text and diagrams) as I debate the questions in Socratic seminar: 1.What is waste? Does nature waste? 2. Have humans changed the natural cycles of earth? 3. Are composting and waste water treatment nature or technology? 4. Where is away? Where should away be? Can it be in your back yard? 5. Are Humans a part of nature? Or apart from nature?

Four Rivers has an essential question: What is the sustainable relationship between nature, technology in its many forms, and the human community? In every grade, students encounter projects that have them investigate themes, concepts, ideas and issues that get at the heart of this question and have them read, think deeply about, and discuss what sustainability means and how we understand our place in the systems of the world. The 7th grade expedition "What is Waste and Where is Away?" is a great example.

The students begin by analyzing the school's trash. They look to see what we throw away and to what extent each classroom faithfully adheres to recycling norms. The groups share out what they learned from this stinky investigation. They then do a reading on food waste and gleaning, use a TEDtalk to examine their data in comparison to the issue of food waste worldwide and participate in a BBK about composting in order to learn about the compost pile as an ecosystem.

Students reord their trash data.

Next, they follow the waste streams out of our school to wherever that leads them, learning the real-world skill of making business phone calls to set up fieldwork. Before they do recycling reconnaissance fieldwork and head out to track the trash, they do a few activities relating the carbon cycle to the disposing of waste: they try their hand at making something go completely away; they explore the physical properties of matter by designing a process to separated recyclables; and they try to make simulated sludge into clean water. Then it's off to see where our waste goes! After following the flush, and connecting with compost, students are asked to observe the microbes used in these processes under a microscope in Waste Water Workers and Compost Critters observation lab and they consider whether the processes used in large-scale composting and at our local waste water treatment facility are examples of nature or technology at work. Students are asked to compare these man-made processes with Water cycle, rock cycle, carbon cycle and nitrogen cycle with the question: does nature waste? They do Carbon Connections and Nitrogen cycle activity to pull this all together.

Students at the landfill where Four Rivers trash is taken.
Students taking notes at a composting farm where the Four Rivers compost ends up.

They pull it all together in their preparation for a science circle discussion. In this phase, they prepare for a Socratic seminar by thinking, reading and talking about the questions: are humans a part of or apart from nature? They read and annotate articles from different perspectives, look at graphs that tell a story about human impact on nature, think about where to draw the line between nature and technology and learn and practice discussion norms and protocols. These are complex questions requiring higher order thinking and the transference of understanding from one context to another. This expedition asks students to look at waste from multiple angles, across a range of contexts and perspectives, and to become experts on waste cycles - and more specifically, how our school manufactures and disposes of waste. Students come to see the many connections between natural and unnatural systems, the many ways we can understand what waste is, our effect on what kind and how much waste is created and what it really means when we say: throw it away!

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