A plastic bag instead of paper, the electricity wasted as idle computers, TV sets and microwave ovens are left plugged in and machine drying clothes when hang drying will certainly do. This helps add up to an uncertain future that could be avoided if we all had a closer look at how those numbers extrapolate across the street and state and over a week or a lifetime. “I think the numbers are shocking,” says 7th grade science teacher Kelly Kischak of Mahopac Middle school, who does an empowering carbon footprint study with fellow teacher, Mary DeNicola, and the students from their two classes. But teaching sustainability in the district is accomplished through an approach in which the subject is encompassed within each discipline – thus hopefully allowing the lessons to become an actual part of living everyday life.
A power outage at home might normally be addressed by mom and dad with a little take out dinner, but if your 8th grader made a solar cooker in Jason Klock’s technology class, a little home cooking is still in play. “We take a pizza box, we cut the top open, and they use aluminum foil and cellophane to make an actual solar panel,” he says.
In addition to the technical aspects, this is also an exercise in geography and earth science. Students must pinpoint the exact geographic location of their home in order to determine the optimum angle of the sun to most effectively fire up their panel.
Ok, so it’s usually something like S’mores that feels the heat of their make shift oven, but solar cooker usage opens their sustainable eyes outward to the developing world where life is just about a perpetual power outage. In the absence of readily available energy sources, he says, it allows people to cook food without wasting precious human resources scrounging for firewood all day long.
Humans are a sustainable resource here too – especially when citizenship is taken seriously and projected globally. Industrial/Technical Education teacher, Gary Luciano takes his class to Stewart Air Force Base so they can see firsthand how airmen and women and the National Guard accumulate humanitarian aid for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. “It’s about community and doing all the right things like staying in school and remaining aware of the world and people around us,” he says.
If that’s too big an idea to grasp, the curriculum shrinks it down so they can wrap themselves in the practical aspect as future planners. Researching different technologies and planning strategies, Mr. Luciano’s class constructed a scale model of a sustainable community – taking into account industrial, commercial and residential components. “It was all done with found materials that were going to be thrown away,” he says.
In Mahopac, though, disposal intends to always be on the decline and Kischak and DeNicola are keeping track of it in their classes. The cafeteria separates its excess into trash, recyclable and compost (which includes biodegradable sugar cane based utensils and trays). Comparing the percentage of pure trash from the previous year, says DeNicola, “The goal is to get hardly anything going into the regular trash.”
Numbers aside, Kischak also counts her kids as natural resources who inherently have the aptitude to make a cross-cultural impact. Working in groups, students compile a book detailing various ecosystems found in the United States. Completed, their work is sent to a teacher in Japan who uses the textbooks to teach science and English to her students.
In return, Mahopac’s students get a glimpse to the fact that the American way isn’t the only way. In another words, the exercise allows them to see they can be part of an educationally sustainable future in which their local knowledge doesn’t stop at the Putnam County Border. “They see the Japanese culture is so unique and different and distinct from them,” says Kischak, and receiving thank you’s from abroad confirm the intended premise.
Back home, students learn that the way they buy makes a statement to manufacturers who don’t pay enough attention to the manner in which we should go into the future, according to Culinary Arts and Consumer Ed teacher Susan Rich. Encouraging them to be discerning when it comes to noting things like packaging, she says, “Why go and buy a basketball in a big box when I could just buy the basketball.”
As for sustaining themselves, she says, that begins with the fine print. “On a food label, we are concerned with high sodium, high fat content and trans-fat, because those are ticketed items for poor health,” she says.
Conversely, foods high in whole grains suffice for good health as is making an effort to prepare meals from scratch. “The products on the shelves are kept there with chemicals and additives to prolong shelf life,” she says, “but not necessarily yours.”
Drawing a distinction between surviving themselves, and the distorted messages that enable the various entities to inflate their bottom lines is Health Teacher Valarie Nierman. For instance, male models and professional athletes a bit too buff for their own good – what are they doing to achieve this and are the results realistic for you, she says the curriculum asks. Additionally, her students find out how popular diets often amount to short term gain that pose real health problems and returns even more weight gain once a normal diet ensues.
Following suit, Mr. Klock makes sure he sends a balanced message – even when some might not see the necessity of it. TV ads for wind power peaks all our interest and constructing a windmill for his technology would seem a win-win for students ready to develop a blind allegiance to it (or any other encouraging form of energy). “Every source of energy has a pro and a con, and I want them to get the entire picture,” he says.
So with a blade that is usually the size of a tractor trailer, a backyard windmill probably won’t work as well as a solar panel on the roof. That is unless it rains, and we probably remember that coal and oil are not yet obsolete to our needs.
As such, it gives them plenty to think about and hitting them from all sides is the main idea in Mahopac. “So if they are hearing it from me, sooner or later it’s going to mesh together, concludes Mr. Klock.
Rich Monetti interview of Kelly Kischak, Mary DeNicola, Jason Klock, Gary Luciano, Susan Rich and Valarie Nierman