By Johnny Ellsworth | September 23, 2019
This past semester, I was afforded the opportunity to work with a class of eighth graders in their preparation of Sustainability Action Projects. The goal of these projects is to essentially come up with and carry out solutions to a specific problem our environment faces. This task is generally seen as the culminating final for eighth grade science here at Greenhills. I was able to sit with them at every step of the process, hear their opinions on issues, and interact in a way that revealed to me how important these SAP projects truly are. I found that these projects force eighth graders to think in new ways, explore innovative solutions, and research complex topics.
The first day I visited was February 8th, and I vividly remember the experience of being unnecessarily terrified at coming into a room full of eighth graders. I said a quick “hi” to Dr. Dershimer and the class, shuffled to the back of the room, and took a tense seat. Eventually, I relaxed my shoulders and suddenly it felt like a dam had opened in my mind: every memory that I had about SAP started to rush in. I sat in the same exact room, Ms. Gleason teaching up front, and I remember debating with myself about what project I wanted to create and what I would be passionate in endeavoring on. I wondered who my partners would be and if they would want to work on the same thing. The first few days of thinking about SAP, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of uncertainty.
As I looked around at those sitting in the same seats that I once did, I wondered if they felt the same way I had. What are they passionate about? Do they have an idea for their projects? Who are they and do they want to be here?
I’d soon find out. My memories began to fade away and I was brought back into the world by Dr. Dershimer explaining how the articles that he’d give the class would aid them in stimulating ideas for their SAP projects. Discussions occurred at every group about potential solutions to reduce energy use, how consuming beef can actually inadvertently cause an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and about how home electronics still use energy while turned off. The wheels of thought were turning.
Groups were also assigned a SAP mini-project. Each group needed to figure out a way to measure some source of greenhouse gas emission in their day-to-day lives, and wonder how our local community might be impacting those emissions. Later, they would present the mini-project in an exhibit.
The next time I visited, the mini projects were done. We walked down the hall to a corridor right off from the cafeteria to take a look at some of them. One explored how much CO2 was produced from the food packaging they ate, another about emissions in food transportation.
After SAP mini-projects concluded, students formed groups and discussed what project they would like to pursue. By early March, there were already numerous ideas floating around the classroom. These eighth graders were discussing the impact of straws in oceans, the detrimental effects of a potential bee extinction, cost and energy benefits of electric vs regular cars, and the Flint water crisis ... the list goes on. They were synthesizing knowledge that they had about the world around them and began to shape those ideas into an action plan.
In formulating any concrete plan, there always must be significant research to inform a decision. These eighth graders were required to. They researched the needs of the problem they faced, scientific principles, existing solutions, and government actions to understand the context for their projects.
By April, a new task was in front of the eighth graders: the prototype. Students had to create a prototype to explore ideas, inspire, and test their tentative action plans. I was shown different types of prototypes done in the past, and was told that the key to a good prototype is clarity and intention in every step of the process. Each group was to identify a need, create their prototype (and test it), share with people for feedback, and to document what users think. It was a task meant to show the importance of testing something before jumping right in, while simultaneously enabling these students to come up with their own experimental design.
I remember this day distinctly because it was the first time that I came to the conclusion that SAP teaches these students how to tackle big issues in ways that are manageable for eighth graders. SAP was to teach those how to make a plan and put it into action, and even if it doesn’t work out, it gives them experience and a consciousness about sustainability. In some ways, the process of SAP is more crucial than the product. Even those who struggle to come up with an action plan learn the valuable lesson of balance between caution and wasting time.
As I was moving from group to group, quietly listening to discussion, I spontaneously heard a question from one of the students to another: “But how does this affect the person you’re targeting?” Honestly, hearing this question caught me off guard, especially because it came from a student. I know that when I was in eighth grade, I hardly thought about SAP through any perspective except my own. The fact that these students were looking at their projects through the eyes of multiple people blew my mind and speaks volumes of its importance.
Capstone night approached faster than I thought it would. In the event’s opening remarks, a student said that “we are excited to share with you the questions we have raised, and the answers we’ve found in our SAPs about how we can contribute to a sustainable model of healthy human existence.” And that would exactly be the theme of the night: innovative solutions to big problems.
The night began with three students, Samantha “Sammy” Markel, Sophia Bleakley Wasserman, and Ella Thorne, presenting their SAP project on the Flint water crisis. Thorne, pointing to their powerpoint presentation, said that “this crisis clearly had a direct, permanent, and lasting effect on the residents of Flint … it was devastating both physically and mentally … our group wanted to do something to stop this from happening again.”
Bleakley Wasserman then points to a solution in their action plan, explaining that they “created a petition that aims to solve two of the underlying problems of the Flint water crisis. [Like the others had mentioned,] the results of the [water] tests that the residents got were skewed because they chose to test homes that were connected to newer pipes … that would not corrode as easily [and thus put less lead into the water]. They were very unclear to the public if the water was safe to drink which caused people to drink unsafe water for much longer than they should have.” She expands on her plan, emphasizing that "we took these issues into consideration and decided to create a petition that encourages our lawmakers to require water districts in Michigan to get their water annually tested by an outside source and to have those results released to the public as soon as they are confirmed.”
After an eruption of applause, Emma Hudson and Elina Palapattu took the stage to explain their project involving PFAS, a lesser-known global pollutant contaminating the Ann Arbor water supply. Hudson explained that PFAS get into the water through surface runoff and waste water from companies, and research shows that PFAS in drinking water can cause a weakened immune system, abnormal growth in children, or even kidney cancer.
Hudson notes that even a small amount of PFAS in water can be detrimental to health, explaining how “a harvard professor suggested even just a 1 parts per trillion (ppt) PFAS limit just to be safe, however, at its highest in Michigan … levels have reached 490,000 ppt.” Hudson explains that the main driver behind these problems is the fact that the EPA only regulates two types of PFAS, which is not nearly enough considering that there are thousands.
The group also mentioned how the main reason why no action has occurred thus far is because of the lack of clarity in the release of water quality results by state or city governments. And so, they worked with the previous SAP group in the creation of a petition.
“The petition requires transparent water quality test results by a 3rd party tester for all of Michigan,” Palapattou explains, “especially for small cities or towns, it’s easy for results to ... not be publicized. In fact, the city of Ann Arbor decided not to release test results showing the dangerously high amounts of certain kinds of dangerous chemicals in the water. This happens because the EPA sets limitations on only a few types of PFAS. The types of contaminants that are polluting the water in Ann Arbor are not covered by the [EPA] guidelines, allowing the results to be quietly released. Our petition would ensure this would not happen. We have the right to know what’s in our water.” They researched their petition by consulting experts from the U of M, ACLU, a reporter from MLive, and Greenhills’ own. If each of you could take a minute and sign their petition, it would mean a whole lot to them.
After a memoir performance, a discussion of the invention of the wheel, and a scene from Romeo & Juliet, it came to the part of the night where each of us traveled to a smaller classroom setting for more presentations. I listened to two SAP groups: one about the expansion of the central campus power generator here at the university, and another about the detrimental effects of straws on ocean life.