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Teaching kids to teach themselves about the environment

By Marcy Ostberg -- For the past four years I have been a teacher in Boston, Massachusetts. During the school year my focus is devoted to the student’s questions and interests. As a result I like to spend my summers traveling and exploring my own personal questions. This year I had the opportunity to spend three weeks as a service learning intern with blueEnergy. I came to Bluefields wanting to learn more about alternative energy, but as I reflect on my time here I realize I have learned far more than originally expected. I have witnessed the resilience of a community up against many challenges and along with the bE staff have grappled with the complexities of finding sustainable solutions to these problems. I have filled many pages of my journal with new ideas and deeper questions. In this Blue News article I will focus on one small snapshot of my experience here, an opportunity I had to see how education can be used as a catalyst to change.
Marcy distributing trash

Unfortunately one of the first things I noticed as a visitor to Bluefields was the trash. The streets and waterways are littered with plastic bottles, water bags, chip bags, and other items such as diapers, cigarettes and beer bottles. I began asking questions looking for the cause. I learned that part of the problem is an ineffective waste management system. There is an open dump on the outskirts of the city yet the trash pickup is inconsistent at best. Although the dump trucks have a schedule it is rarely kept and therefore the residents are unsure when to bring out their trash. It is also difficult to get trash to the trucks, especially for families who live down winding alleyways, deep within the barrios. This ineffective waste management leaves few options and many choose to pile and burn.

One of the first steps to improve this situation is teaching the community to reduce the amount of waste they produce. blueEnergy wanted to capture my experience as a teacher and asked me to develop a lesson plan around this topic. The goal was to help students in Bluefields critically think about this issue and introduce waste reduction as one part of the solution.
Gabriella helping Marcy teach about waste in Bluefields

The lesson was designed around a teaching strategy called experiential education. The basic idea is that students have an experience with the topic, reflect on the experience, learn more about the topic and then apply what they have learned. I wanted to use this strategy to help the students really engage. For the initial experience students made hypothesis about the type of trash that would be most common. They then tested their hypothesis by sorting through trash I had collected from the street and counting the most common items. They found that the small blue bags for drinking water were the most common item, followed closely by chip bags and plastic bottles. Following this experience students brainstormed questions in response to the prompt. They came up with some excellent questions about why this problem exists, how does waste management work in Bluefields and what are possible solutions. I was impressed by their concern for their city. One student said in her reflection, “I love the topic because I learned about how to help my Bluefields.”
Students asking tough questions

Many of their questions were then incorporated into a lesson about how to reduce waste. There final reflections demonstrated that they learned a lot from the lesson. Many of the students made comments about no longer throwing their trash on the streets and had ideas of ways they could improve the situation. One student wisely commented, “It starts from home with your family.” Some students left the lesson really wanting to make a change. One such student said, “We can try something. I promise you when you have a next visit you will see everything change.” We even had some future environmentalists in the group like this student who wrote, “And a word of advice to all. We have to learn that if we continue putting the rubbish in the street it will harm the environment and can cause many diseases such as malaria or dengue. Please do not throw trash on the street and protect our environment.” With comments such as these I felt the lesson was a huge success and left hopeful that the situation would change. I turned back as I left the classroom and saw the school motto painted brightly on a sign. It read “knowledge is power” and after my experience here I would add to that, knowledge is the first step towards change.
Creole-speaking high school, Bluefields, Nicaragua

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