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‘Carbon Cleansers’ Tackle Ways to Reduce Construction Footprint

As large construction vehicles lifted concrete and moved dirt in the school yard to construct a new multi-purpose field and road, students planted a line of 10 young white pine trees next to a wetland bordering West Middle School. Inside a classroom, they glued moss onto cloth-covered pieces of wood, the beginnings of an air-filtering moss wall.

Putting oxygen into the air offsets carbon-dioxide emissions, and a major construction project creates a big ecological footprint, explained eighth-grader Bailey Vandenberg, a member of the school’s Eco Challenge team. The eight Earth-conscious eighth-graders — dubbed “Carbon Cleansers” — are working to offset carbon emissions using an action plan, which they are entering into a competition that has involved the whole school.

“It’s something I care about because we have just been hurting the environment more and more,” Bailey said of polluters and using up natural resources in general. “We are trying to minimize the damage and heal the environment.”

Eighth-graders Sophie Millhouse and Bailey Vandenberg plant a white pine tree on school property
Eighth-graders Sophie Millhouse and Bailey Vandenberg plant a white pine tree on school property

Seventh- and eighth-grade science teachers Justin Vande Pol and Ben Lacy restarted the Eco Challenge team this fall after replacing it with Science Olympiad two years ago. The team is competing in the Scholastic Lexus Eco Challenge, a national STEM competition that awards a total of $500,000 in grants and scholarships to eligible teachers, students, and schools each year.

Students complete projects in the areas of Land and Water, and Air and Climate, for sixteen prizes of $10,000. Winning teams from the challenge can then compete for a final challenge for two $30,000 grand prizes and eight $15,000 first-place prizes.

Along with planting the tree saplings and creating the sustainable moss wall, students hosted a “green” theme week, encouraging their peers to carpool, recycle and reduce paper and electricity usage. Team members presented ways to reduce one’s personal carbon footprint.

They also gathered data from comparing vehicle emissions with the output of oxygen-producing plants and by looking at the impacts of their green-week efforts. They conducted an experiment to collect air-borne particles on vaseline-lathered paper at West Middle School, Byron Center High School and on the Kent Trails and compare the results. And they contacted a Michigan diesel mechanic to help calculate the C02 emission of the construction vehicles.

“We are going to offset the construction with our moss wall and trees,” VandePol said. It will take some time, but the trees — a white pine lives on average 200 years — and the wall will offset the construction. We completed our mission.”

Eighth-grader McKenna Morris shows particles captured on vaseline strips from the air at different locations
Eighth-grader McKenna Morris shows particles captured on vaseline strips from the air at different locations

A History of Eco-Consciousness

Eco Challenge at West Middle School has an impressive track record. The 2014 team won $40,000 including the grand prize. They provided two pedal-powered generators for students to charge their laptops rather than plug in to outlets, and, for the final challenge, purchased water filters and a well for communities in Haiti, the Philippines and Kenya. In 2010-2011 the team won $10,000 by raising funds to buy rainforest land to completely offset the Middle School building’s carbon footprint and helping transition to a paperless system.

“I love the opportunity to connect science to the real world and mentor students who are passionate about science,” Vande Pol said. “And, of course, to make a difference in the school and local community.”

Team member Kierin Hawkins said she likes that she is helping leave a green mark at the school. An animal lover, she wants to preserve the planet for its many creatures. “It’s our only world,” she said.

Students said they are learning about the environmental impact of everyday choices and activities.

“It’s eye-opening to learn how much construction affects the environment,” added team member Alena Walker.

Being good environmental stewards requires effort from all parties, and Owen Ames Kimball, the construction firm completing district-wide bond projects, has stepped up, Vande Pol said. Along with preserving wetlands, it is using recycled concrete for the gravel base under the new roads, and parking lots and all concrete and masonry waste on this project will be recycled. On projects district-wide, new buildings’ shells are completely insulated, doors and windows are insulated, and electric heat will be installed, which lessens the impact of fossil fuels on the environment.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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