[St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School] A group of teenagers are huddled around small solar panels, connective wires, and a radio on a bright fall morning. Their challenge: to make the radio operate by using only the power of the sun. “Touch a different metal and see if it works,” says Rob Wolfe, Middle School Science Teacher at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School (SSSAS) in Alexandria, Virginia. The radio begins to play. “Yay!” The students cheer their success. “It’s so interesting to them,” Wolfe said. “And once you see what you can make by hand, it’s just interesting to think of all the possibilities out there.”
Working with solar energy was just one of the hands-on sessions offered during the Students for Sustainability Conference (S4S), hosted by St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes on October 31. More than 100 middle and high school students and teachers from ten schools in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland attended the annual event, which offers a day of education, discussion, and planning for environmental sustainability in schools. Students learned about issues such as solar-powered cars, bird-friendly coffee, creating art from the earth using traditional Peruvian techniques, and the environmental impact of water run-off at school campuses.
“I think young people can really make a difference if they know what the problems are, what’s going on, and what we need to do to fix it,” said Tori Miller, a senior at SSSAS who co-led one of the workshops and is active in the Upper School Environmental Club and on the school-wide Environmental Sustainability Committee. She says S4S heightens awareness and inspires students to act. “Every little thing makes a difference.”
Some of the sessions were led by students, including one about tree-banding to measure the effects of climate on trees in your area. SSSAS seniors Cullin Brown and Ben Foshee, who are working with the Smithsonian Tree Banding Project, demonstrated the process in the school’s Perkins Courtyard Sustainable Garden. In another session, SSSAS senior Daniella Diaz and her classmates were creating “green lunchboxes” with only reusable, sustainable products such as washable sandwich wraps and lunch bags instead of plastic. “Students need to learn that if you do little things every day, it will add to the big picture,” Diaz said. “When you see someone going the extra mile, doing a little thing that’s environmentally friendly, you’re more likely to do it, too.”
It’s that collective energy that keeps SSSAS senior Ulises Giacoman coming back to S4S. Like Miller, he is a student representative on the all-school Environmental Sustainability Committee, along with faculty and administrators. Last year, he attended a session about urban composting. “As soon as I got out of that session, I was like, I’m going to go home, and I’m going to compost!” he said. “It’s a great feeling to be empowered after a conference.”
Typically students work on sustainability issues at their schools in small groups, said Jillian Joyce, JK-12 sustainability coordinator at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes. The S4S conference offers them a chance to create larger networks. “For them to come together and get re-energized and realize there are more people out there like them who are doing the same work, it’s just inspiring, and it encourages the kids to go back and spread that message to their larger student body,” Joyce said.
Students also heard the message from regional and global perspectives. Adults who are working in environmental fields presented at S4S, including keynote speaker Phillip Ellis, field organizer for the Sierra Club. Ellis works with the Beyond Coal campaign, which helped negotiate the planned closure of the GenOn Potomac River Coal Plant in Alexandria. Three St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes alumni also led sessions: Todd Harding ’65 spoke about the educational and environmental role of bees in schoolyards, Chris Miller ’82 from the Piedmont Environmental Council demonstrated the effects of water run-off on school campuses, and Tyler Suiters ’87 spoke about his career as the chief correspondent for “Energy NOW!,” a weekly national television news magazine.
“What I’d like to show them is what happens in other parts of the world,” Suiters said. “For example our carbon emissions per capita, which is sky high compared with so much of the rest of the world; the way we live our lives. I just want them to think a little bit more about the effects of their choices on the environment and on the earth.”
Before leading his session on solar energy, Wolfe set up a stationary bike that students could pedal and generate energy to see how much it takes to power different types of light bulbs. Last summer, he attended a professional development course on Teaching Solar Energy to Kids led bySolar Energy International which helped him bring new ideas back to the classroom, such as the possibilities for solar cooking in developing countries.
“I hope the students will understand that there are alternatives to what we’re currently doing [with energy],” Wolfe added. “That they will be excited about spending their lives looking into how to use renewables and how to conserve more.”
SSSAS started the annual S4S Conference in 2008 as part of an overall commitment to sustainability, which is woven into the school’s JK-12 curriculum. Each year, the S4S conference is waste-free; everything used/served during the day is recycled or composted. The silverware is made from potatoes, and the cups, plates, and napkins are recyclable. Since the conference started four years ago, Joyce says she’s seen enthusiasm grow and students making “green” choices such as carpooling, walking, or biking to school.
“We have students who have sworn off bottled water as a result of coming to the conference, and every person not drinking bottled water can save 125 bottles a year,” Joyce said. “That might seem small, but with enough people doing that, the impact is really great.”
Students also had the chance to submit an idea for an environmental project and win a mini-grant to help complete it. Miller and others say S4S is not just a one-day effort; they want to continue leading the charge at school, in college, and beyond: “I’m definitely interested in being in some sort of college club that has to do with environmental issues and maybe even pursuing that as a career.”
“We’re building leadership for the future,” Joyce said. “I think schools are wonderful places where faculty members and adults listen to kids, and kids can enact change right there, right then.”