On December 11, 2015, outreach staff from the Environmental Protection Agency and the US2020 VISTAs teamed up to teach students from YE Smith Elementary about the environment, sustainability, and the chemistry of everyday reactions. YE Smith is located in Eastern Durham, and around half of the students are not native English speakers. Some of the activities the students participated in include representing a complete combustion reaction with Legos, getting to learn about recycling, and collecting data of the properties of rocks using their observations. I was really excited that the students could engage in material at such a young age, some of which I first saw in my high school or even college chemistry classes.
Going into the well-worn halls in the morning, I had no idea what to expect from the students. What level of understanding would they display? Would they understand how sustainability applies to their own lives? I was very excited when students in the fourth grade class not only easily grasped the concept of man-made global warming, but also introduced their own thoughts on energy efficiency, ethical vegetarianism, and changing weather patterns. In a first grade classroom, a student explained to me how composting is important for the soil. It was very inspiring to see students not only understanding, but contributing to a discussion of such an important issue.
During the “Trash Talk” segment, Tatiana was impressed by how the kindergarten students were able to critically think as they sorted through a pretend bag of trash and decided what all could be salvaged via recycling, reuse, or composting. At the onset of the activity, students all said “eww” in unison. However, as their trash was handed out, young students could be heard enthusiastically imagining and sharing with classmates how to reuse containers, compost banana peels, and recycle cans.
All in all, our trip to YE Smith proved to be not only a fun break from the office, but also a careful reminder to never underestimate the students we serve. The EPA continues to be an important partner to the US2020 mission, by sending STEM professionals into local schools and hosting moments of discovery just like this one. I returned to the office refreshed and with a better sense of purpose and understanding of the students we serve.