The grounds of the School of Environmental Studies (SES) received a thorough spring cleaning on Earth Day, which is an annual celebratory service-learning opportunity for students. Juniors and seniors rolled up their sleeves April 22 and participated in a variety of hands-on projects aimed at helping locally and making a positive impact globally.
“Earth Day is a favorite here at SES,” said Principal Lauren Trainer. “We know that positive change happens when groups of people get together and take action toward something that matters. Earth Day is a perfect example of a little community making a difference.”
The theme of the 2021 Earth Day was “Recover from yesterday, sustain tomorrow,” which students said reflected the challenges experienced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and an optimism for a healthier future. The theme was displayed visually in a vibrant banner created by students Elizabeth Perelman, Monica Gomez-Dassow, Katie Schlinger, Hannah Rylander and Jessica Wold. Typically, the banner is unveiled during a spirited all-school assembly and pot luck, but because of health and safety protocols, the events were modified.
“This year has brought unique challenges,” said Liz Dengate, 12th-grade science teacher. “Despite that, teachers and students really see the value of this day so we worked together to come up with some great teacher- and student-led workshops and activities.”
Instead of guest lecturers, staff and students created engaging Earth Day events, such as a schoolwide environmental trivia contest, upcycling refuse into prom décor, outdoor workshops with their chickens, and in-depth discussions about environmental issues related directly to Minnesota. Around campus, students and staff removed invasive buckthorn, cleaned up the rain and community gardens, even planted new trees.
“Our goal is that students will have fun with the service projects and try them outside of school as well,” said Oakley Ferguson, a senior at SES. “Earth Day is important because it gives people an idea of problems that may be going on around the world that we previously didn’t know about. Knowing about these problems could help us come up with ideas on how to help and save it.”
To ensure their Earth Day contributions were felt beyond the school border, students expanded upon a scientific inquiry course on a project aimed at providing electricity to a refugee camp in a remote part of Kenya. SES partnered with “We Share Solar” and Wells Fargo to build solar suitcases to send to schools at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.
“The students not only got to learn the science of electricity and the harvesting of solar energy, but also about the inequality of energy access around the world and how fortunate they are to have easy access to electricity, education and opportunity,” Dengate said.
This hands-on learning provides students an opportunity to explore their engineering skills and build an environmentally friendly piece of equipment. And at the same time, the finished product benefits those in need. Currently, the We Share Solar program has deployed 715 solar suitcases to energy scare regions, which benefit over 215,000 students, teachers and community members.
“The cool thing about this project,” said Kristen McBrien, scientific inquiry teacher, “is it reconnects students to purpose of this project and they get to see it in use because they send us photos. It’s so meaningful to see our work in action.”
In a school year marked by constant change, the foundational beliefs of SES – promoting environmental sustainability and giving back to the community – remained consistent. Trainer said despite the challenges brought by COVID-19, students remained committed to coming together for Earth Day.
“During such a tough and turbulent year, it's a chance for our whole school to come together for something positive, forward-thinking and productive,” Dengate said. “We hope our students are empowered to take action for their planet and communities, not only today but also moving forward. We want them to have fun, be active, get outside, and think and learn about the larger community they're a part of.”