Jolene Smock, a science teacher at Perseus Hous
e Charter School of Excellence (CSE), wanted to get her students thinking deeper about their environmental footprint.
Research into their school’s waste began during science classes. There, students studied the environmental and health-related effects of their cafeteria’s Styrofoam trays, disposable plastic utensils and refillable plastic water cups.
What began as an in-class research project turned into a much deeper journey about making change – and making a difference.
HOW QUICKLY IT ALL ADDS UP
The Charter School of Excellence is a 600-student public charter high school in ERIE’s home and namesake city of Erie, Pennsylvania. The school meets the needs of students who have not found success in their previous schools through enhanced academic support, soft skill work development and social emotional learning.
Through the research project, CSE students learned just how quickly single-use items added up and that items from just their small school contributed to a significant amount of waste going to the landfill every day. Here’s what they found:
- Styrofoam trays: Students used approximately 600 trays daily, or about 108,000 trays annually.
- Disposable utensils: Students used more than 600 disposable utensils each day, equaling more than 3 million pieces of single use plastics since the school opened in 2003.
These statistics and their continued study of the environmental impact prompted students to do something about it.
The science students decided to join forces with the school’s recycling club and student news team and advocate to reduce waste and make a difference in their carbon footprint. They requested a grant from Erie Insurance to fund their environmental initiatives, including reusable items in the cafeteria and water refilling stations.
“This project aligned well with ERIE’s interest in environmental responsibility,” explained Ann Scott, Erie Insurance’s community outreach manager. “We were impressed by the students’ passion for this project, research and creative ideas.”
ERIE’s grant to the Charter School of Excellence helped fund:
- Reusable compartment lunch trays for the school cafeteria
- Reusable forks, spoons, and knives
- Three drinking fountain and water bottle refilling station combo units
- One water bottle refilling station in the lunch room
- Safe, reusable water bottles for students
BOOSTING HYDRATION AND REDUCING PLASTIC BOTTLE USE
With their new drinking fountains and water bottle refilling stations in place, the next step was to gather more data. Students, teachers and staff completed a water consumption survey to measure improvement.
They found that daily usage of the water fountains had increased, as more students were refilling the bottle they received from the grant. Disposable water bottle waste had decreased. They also learned that students were consuming more water, which is shown to have a positive impact on learning.
“It was encouraging to see that the fountain usage, water bottle usage and overall amount of water consumed increased significantly as part of this project,” said Renee Gordon, Ph.D., the school’s Curriculum Director and Comprehensive School improvement Specialist. “It shows that students needed educated on these topics.”
A POSITIVE IMPACT BEYOND THE SCHOOL WALLS
Staff at the school also noticed that the positive impact was extending into the community.
“After educating students, it was apparent that students started educating their family and friends about recycling and eliminating single-use plastics and Styrofoam, and replacing those products with sustainable materials in the home,” Gordon said. “Students also urged other students to drink more water for improved learning in school. The encouragement was infectious around the building and positively impacted the school culture.”
That’s the type of outcome from the grant funding ERIE leaders had wished for.
“We hoped the final outcome would be changed behavior with reusable materials,” said Scott. “The students are now learning practical science and making an impact on the environment, their school and their community at the same time.”