On April 22, Earth Day, 17 middle and upper schoolers found out they’d turned trash into treasure. The students learned that a sustainability project they spearheaded won the Shane McConkey EcoChallenge’s grand prize of $6,000 to benefit sustainability endeavors at Rowland Hall.
Now-seniors Alicia Lu and Cindy Shen, along with help from now-freshman Hailey Hauck, led an inspiring cross-divisional charge last school year to collect garbage and turn it into eco-bricks—plastic bottles stuffed with non-recyclable trash—to build a bench on the western side of the Lincoln Street Campus. They collected about 10 large trash bags, or 1,000 gallons, of dry non-recyclables in a month. Watch their EcoChallenge video entry here.
Cindy and Alicia were thrilled at news of the win, and their Middle School counterparts were “almost more excited than we were,” Cindy said. The victory left Hailey speechless. “I knew that we had a chance, but winning a national award seemed too farfetched,” she said.
Seventh-grade World Studies Teacher Margot Miller advised Alicia and Cindy on this undertaking, which served as the juniors’ Project 11. Ms. Miller also helped them galvanize the Middle School community in support of the cause.
“They were motivated to do something about the environment,” Alicia said of her younger peers.
Sixth through eighth graders made promotional project posters, donated the most trash, and stuffed the most bottles. Middle schoolers also came up with the idea to create a competition between grade levels to fuel productivity. Whichever grade donated the most non-recyclables earned a free dress day; the youngest group, sixth graders, won.
“At Rowland Hall, everyone sort of thrives on competitiveness, so we needed to make some sort of competition for our project,” Hailey said.
Some students were inherently motivated, but multiple incentives helped to drive project participation, Alicia explained. “We felt like it’s great to be altruistic, but you kind of need an incentive to stuff trash into trash,” she joked. The incentives worked. For example, at the May 20 All-School Carnival, the EcoChallenge team gave out donut holes to anyone who would stuff a bottle. Volunteers from all divisions pitched in, including little beginning schoolers who tried their hands at bottle-stuffing for a few minutes.
That sort of community collaboration helped to make the project highly successful. Hailey, a Rowland Hall lifer and an eighth grader last year, valued the opportunity to spend time with and learn from upper schoolers. “It’s sort of hard to motivate people in your grade, because you’re their peers,” Hailey said. “It can be done, but it’s much easier when you have people who are older than you to help you with that.” There was a sense of looking to Alicia and Cindy as role models, she said. Cindy and Alicia, in turn, gave middle schoolers an equal voice in the project and gave them full credit for bringing a “creative edge” to the table, including the competition idea.
Alicia, Cindy, and Hailey completed work on the bench last summer, with help from Rowland Hall staff members and a professional contractor. While the bench itself is made partially with sustainable supplies—the eco-bricks—its main purpose is to raise community awareness. Before the end of 2016, the students plan to install a commemorative plaque that lists the prize-winning project and all students involved, along with a dedication to Ms. Miller.
Alicia and Cindy used some of the EcoChallenge prize money to finish the bench, but the vast majority remains and will be made available to students who want to pursue similar sustainability projects in the future. Alicia and Cindy set up a formal application process for students who want to conduct environmental projects; view the application here. And for any future student-run sustainability projects that win prize money, that money would ideally go back into the sustainability project fund.