Student Involvement at Lee Academy: Finding Opportunities Out the Window

Lesson plans literally present themselves just outside the windows of Lee Academy in Lee, Maine, for teacher Susan Linscott and her high school students. A small bridge down the street, slated for replacement, has involved the environmental science and physics classes. A potential outbreak of spruce budworm in the forests surrounding the town has become the focus of another unit. And at the nearby junior-high and elementary schools, Lee students serve as mentors and tutors to their younger counterparts.

Lee Academy began in the 19th century as a “normal school” to train teachers. The original building, an imposing brick structure, is now the centerpiece of a campus with about 130 local students, as well as 80 international students who live in dormitories. Whether the students come from down the road or across the globe, they have gained an appreciation of how science relates to their everyday lives, thanks in part to Linscott’s classes.

“To me, it’s a priority to make learning place-based, community-based, and inquiry-based,” said Linscott, who has been involved with Maine PLT since 2003. “When I am going through standards and planning a unit, I think of ways to connect to issues or get kids outside.”

Lee Academy teacher Susan Linscott and students Lauren Dodge and Masato Tsuchida inspect the stream near their school.

Building a Better Bridge

During an educator forestry tour cosponsored by Maine PLT, Linscott learned about culverts, the tunnels or other structures built to cross streams and divert water from roads and bridges. Poorly constructed culverts can restrict stream flow and affect fish and other wildlife. After forest managers and engineers explained the intricacies of Maine’s thousands of culverts during the tour, a lesson was born.

Linscott’s unit on Stream Crossings began with a presentation from a local forester, who presented an overview of why stream crossings are important, their structure and the loads they need to support, and the costs and environmental impacts. Students conducted a survey in Lee to analyze culverts for environmental safety and structural integrity. They then assumed the role of engineers. Using materials that ranged from scrap lumber to soda bottles, they designed models that would have to minimize environmental impacts while also withstanding weight.

Linscott has learned that place-based education calls for flexibility when conditions in the “place” change. In summer 2016, a student noticed debris had dammed the stream below a small bridge down the street from the school. It turned out that the bridge is slated for replacement. Linscott revised her unit to draw on this real-world situation. Environmental science and physics students spent the past year researching the current impacts and suggesting potential replacements. In the coming school year, they will present their findings to the Town Selectmen. 

Tapping into Community Concern

In a series of outbreaks, most recently in the 1970s and 1980s, spruce budworms have devastated millions of acres of forestland in the northern U.S. and Canada, with environmental, economic, and policy-related ramifications. Canada has again been hard hit, with the possibility that the pest will move into U.S. conifers. Working with Maine PLT, the Maine Forest Service, and Canadian provinces to understand the potential for another outbreak, Linscott developed a unit to involve students in this pressing issue.

The unit covers the history, economics, and environmental impacts of the last outbreak and helps students predict how a future outbreak may impact the forest ecosystem. Students researched the science, interviewed Lee residents who lived through the last outbreak, and planned a “dine and discuss” community forum. The event featured presentations by a MFS regional forester, forest entomologist, and wildlife biologist, as well as the students’ findings.

When junior Lauren Dodge installed some of the traps at home, she had one of those revelatory moments that can make science so powerful. “We have fir trees, and I put up traps,” she said. “Seeing how science happens at your own house, and the world around you, changes how you look at everything.”

Mentoring and Community Service

Linscott created and facilitates a Mentorship and Community Service class, in which students spend time with younger students at the nearby junior-high and elementary schools. Just as Linscott has to figure out how to engage her students, they do the same with their younger counterparts. “I see how difficult it is for kids to focus, but how cool it is when they understand a concept and you are the one who has helped,” said Dodge. “I have a whole new perspective on what it’s like to work with students.”

Yvonne Yan, a senior, worked with a 6-year-old who arrived in the middle of last year speaking only Chinese. Yan helped the first-grader become acclimated to his new surroundings. She also tutored in math, her favorite subject, realizing that she often approached problem-solving in a different way based on her education in China. “There is more than one way to reach a solution,” she said, adding she recognizes that lesson applies beyond math calculations.

Another Lee senior, Masato Tsuchida, served as a resource to an entire class of third-graders. He admitted he had difficulty at first gaining their attention and respect. “But when they work freely to look up something that they are interested in and I could help, that is cool,” he concluded.

Earlier this year, Patricia Maloney, the Maine PLT coordinator, successfully nominated the Lee Service Learning Team, consisting of Linscott and her students, for the Spirit of Teddy Roosevelt Award sponsored by the nonprofit group Maine Woods Forever. “Thanks to Susan’s professional dedication and passion, the Lee community has gained a greater awareness of challenges facing their own region and can carry their messages far beyond the Lee borders,” Maloney said.

Increasing Involvement through PLT

Linscott draws on PLT’s Focus on Forests high school module and other K-12 guides to create lessons throughout the school year. She has also connected with Maine PLT through the Maine Forest Inventory Growth (FIG) Project, a field-based curriculum designed by Maine educators and natural resource professionals. Through FIG, students and teachers establish long-term study plots using protocol from the U.S. Forest Service’s forest analysis program, and Linscott said her students value the ability compare data across time and location. “Susan joined a FIG training and immediately made plans to set up a study plot at Lee,” noted Maloney. “She then became a PLT facilitator and soon after, hosted a workshop at Lee Academy.”

Linscott said she values the connections made through PLT with other educators and professionals. A district forester, Terri Coolong, lives within a mile of Lee Academy, for example, and is a great resource. “Pat [Maloney] has connected me with people, materials, and learning how to use tools,” Linscott said. “PLT is a great networking source to increase student involvement.”

Tips for Increased Student Involvement—from Students and Their Teacher

PLT asked Lee high-schoolers how they thought teachers could best engage with students and what has worked for them:

  • The younger you are, the more you can absorb. When we experiment and design things, it will stay with us for the rest of our lives. — Lauren Dodge, junior
  • You can learn about a concept like biomagnification. When you see the effect of lead on wildlife, for example, it really makes the concept stay with you. — Cole Harriman, junior
  • Let kids explore their own interests. When they ask questions that they have been wondering about, they will want to find out the answers. — Masato Tsuchida, senior
  • My father and I walked by a construction site in China after being at school in Lee and I could show him the difference between A and C level soils. He was impressed! — Yvonne Yan, senior
  • Whether kids are aged 8 or 18, don’t be afraid to get them outside. Let them get dirty, let them explore. — Susan Linscott, teacher


Stream Crossing unit plan and grading rubric draft, developed by Susan Linscott for Lee Academy

Spruce Budworm Community Outreach Unit

Maine Forest Inventory Growth Project

10 Tips from a Student for a High Performing Green School

Green Team members, Leeann Soyka and Lauren Pelzner, led their high school to be the first certified PLT GreenSchool in their school district.

As the leader of the Green Team at my high school (George C. Marshall in Falls Church, VA), I’m proud of the work we have done to become the first high school in Fairfax County Public Schools to achieve Project Learning Tree’s GreenSchools certification. Obtaining this certification was truly a collaborative effort that involved more than 100 students, the principal, and the efforts of countless volunteers. Along the way, I not only discovered how to make my school a greener and healthier place, but also gained skills in leadership and learned about many environmental careers.

Here are a few tips that might help other schools become a certified PLT GreenSchool. (Please see my earlier article, A Rising Senior Starts a GreenSchools Program, for suggestions on how to get a green schools program up and running at your school.)


An information table at school events is a great way to recruit Green Team members and raise awareness.


Tip # 1: Develop a Timeline and Recruit Green Team Members

One of the first things I did was work with the adult sponsors to develop a timeline for completing the five GreenSchools Investigations. The investigations include:

  • School Site
  • Energy
  • Water
  • Waste & Recycling
  • Environmental Quality

Next we recruited members for the “Green Team” to help carry out the Investigations. We did this by announcing meetings and hosting a table at school activities. One of our most successful recruiting techniques was a display at school-wide events. Students who stopped by our table could draw a question about energy – correct answers were rewarded with candy! Then they could sign up to receive emails and texts about upcoming Green Team meetings.


Tip # 2: Allocate More Time for the School Site Investigation

Green Team members measure the circumference of a tree on the school grounds to determine the dollar value of the ecosystem services it provides.

Because the School Site Investigation takes more time than some of the others, we conducted this Investigation during the summer when it was nice to be outside and when students had more time to volunteer.

One of our favorite parts of this Investigation was assessing the health of the trees on the school grounds and measuring their circumference to calculate the dollar value of the ecosystem services that the trees provide. We did this using i-Tree, a free online tree benefits calculator. We determined that the value was $2,527 per year! This information was shared to highlight the importance of caring for trees on the school property and to encourage additional tree planting.

Student volunteers also worked in the native species and vegetable garden throughout the year, mainly during study hall and after school on Fridays. We had great success getting donations of both plants and labor from local nurseries and landscape companies. In addition, we received donations and raised money to expand our green roof.


Tip # 3: A Little Competition Can Help Save Water and Energy

George C. Marshall High School won the top award for saving water.

Join the EPA’s Battle of the Buildings Water and Energy competition (EPA Battle of the Buildings) to get faculty and students excited about saving water and energy at your school!

To kick-off the competition, our principal invited us to speak at a faculty meeting about the GreenSchools program and ways that staff could get involved in water and energy conservation efforts. We presented a PowerPoint and provided a handout with water and energy saving tips. Then over the next several months, an energy or water saving “Tip of the Week” was announced over the loudspeaker, emailed to faculty, and posted in hallways, bathrooms, and classrooms. The Green Team also assessed each classroom, bathroom, water fountain, and outdoor spigot for leaks. Problems were reported and fixed. This resulted in significant savings on utility bills.

Our efforts paid off when we found out that our school won the water conservation award for K-12 schools in the EPA Battle of Buildings competition!


Tip #4: Work with Consultants on Energy Efficiency

Find out if your school works with energy consultants. If so, see if they can meet with students to discuss energy saving strategies specific for your school.

Energy consultant provides a tour of the HVAC system at George C. Marshall High School.


Tip # 5: Get Creative Around Waste & Recycling

During our audit of waste and recycling, we discovered that many students weren’t taking the time to place recyclables in proper containers – especially during lunch. So we decorated the recycling bins and moved them to obvious locations in the cafeteria. Green Team students took turns standing by the bins to remind students how to properly recycle. We also discovered that our school district has a “Food Sharing” policy that allows schools to donate unopened food to local shelters and food banks.

You may be able to create extra enthusiasm for cafeteria recycling and composting by getting the principal or a teacher to dress up in a banana costume, or other compostable fruit or vegetable!


Tip #6: Monitor CO2, Temperature, and Humidity Levels in Classrooms

Green Team members used a monitor to measure CO2 levels in classrooms.

One of the most interesting things about the Environmental Quality Investigation was monitoring classrooms for temperature and carbon dioxide levels. We found out that if the level of CO2 in classrooms is too high or classrooms are too hot, it can make students lethargic!  So we borrowed a CO2 monitor and an infrared laser thermometer. The data we collected showed that CO2 levels were within acceptable ranges, however, many classrooms were too hot or too cold. With this data, teachers felt empowered to report issues for repair.

Cleaning supplies used at George C. Marshall High School.

Be sure to monitor CO2, temperature, and humidity levels in classrooms when they are occupied to get useful readings.

We also met with our school’s head custodian to determine if the school was using “green” cleaning supplies. He was enthusiastic about showing our Green Team the labels on the cleaning supplies and explaining the school’s cleaning policies.


Tip # 7: Share Your Success

Green Team members host a display at the Town of Vienna Green Expo.

Participating in community events, such as garden days and green expos, is a great way to share your success and encourage other schools and institutions to green their buildings.

To encourage other schools in our district to ‘go green,’ we hosted two open houses where teachers, administrators, and students could tour our school and learn about our efforts.  The Green Team, as well as teachers and parent volunteers, led the tours and answered questions. Our Green Team also participated in a community “Green Expo.” At this event, we shared why we started the GreenSchools program and how other schools in the area could get involved.


Tip #8: Explore STEM Career Connections

Throughout the investigations, we acted as scientists as we collected and analyzed data, and developed action plans to green our school. We also learned about a variety of STEM careers. Here are some highlights:

  • A National Wildlife Refuge manager spoke to students about internships and careers with public lands and wildlife management
  • Staff from our county water testing lab came to our school to discuss water quality testing and related careers, and invited students to tour the lab
  • A landscape architect met with students to discuss careers in landscape design and installation, and the importance of landscaping to protect local waterways
  • An energy engineer provided a tour of our school’s HVAC system and talked about careers in providing and conserving energy
  • A parent volunteer showed us how to use air quality monitoring equipment and discussed related careers


Tip # 9: Use GreenSchools as Inspiration for Other Environmental Education Projects

To become a certified PLT GreenSchool, schools must also demonstrate they are incorporating environmental and sustainability education into other areas of the school’s curriculum.

At my high school, the majority of students take “Environmental Systems and Societies” in 11th or 12th grade. This environmental science course requires students to do original research on a topic of their choice. One of the great things about the GreenSchools program is that it provided us with ideas for course projects.

For example, a student investigated the impact that cars idling in the “Kiss and Ride” area have on outdoor air quality, another investigated how plants in classrooms affect indoor air quality, while others monitored the water quality of a stream behind the school. This course also inspired many art students to incorporate environmental themes into their art work. For instance, one friend built a 3-D sculpture out of used plastic water bottles that showed how they harm the environment, another depicted coral reefs in her ceramic pieces to create awareness about protecting these fragile environments, and I used the theme of human’s connections with nature in my senior art project. In addition, because we had more than 100 students on our Green Team, there were many opportunities for us to share ideas and work together on class, science fair, and service projects.


Tip #10: Use PLT’s GreenSchools Investigations to Build Environmental Literacy

If your school can’t tackle all five of PLT’s GreenSchools Investigations in one year, pick one or two that are most relevant to your school to get started.  By participating in PLT’s GreenSchools program, I saw how what I’m learning in my science classes is directly applicable to solving environmental problems in the real world. I also experienced the power of teamwork in accomplishing my school’s sustainability goals.

For more information about becoming a Certified PLT GreenSchool and free access to PLT’s GreenSchools Invesitgations, register here. Good luck and have fun!


Editor’s Note: George C. Marshall High School offers the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which aims to develop internationally-minded people who, recognizing their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world. PLT’s GreenSchools program supports this goal by providing a cross-discipline mechanism for students to explore their environment, think critically about ways to make improvements, and implement environmental action plans.


Students Blend Art with Science in Community Garden

For 25 years, Project Learning Tree has been awarding GreenWorks! grants to schools and organizations across the country for projects that support children’s learning, ideas, actions, and voices about the environment.

One such grant given last year to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science in Albuquerque was sparked by children’s interest in learning more about the animals that live in a community garden next to the museum.



Intersection of Art and Science

Some of the funding from the grant was used to purchase seeds and plants, pavers, and sets of gloves and trowels for the garden’s volunteer caretakers—children and their families who gather once a week as part of an afterschool family program to learn how to plant and take care of the Kiwanis Learning Garden.  In January last year, 16 children (ages 4-11) each chose to study an animal found in the garden. They made puppets using cloth and clay, and created a show to share their research about animal-plant relationships. In the summer weeks they created mosaics. In October, the remaining grant funds helped pay for panels featuring the children’s reports and mosaics. These were installed outdoors for a permanent art exhibit for the benefit of the public who use the garden.

The project gave children a deeper understanding of the interactions between animals and plants that live in the garden and the importance of native plants. The children’s artwork was a visual representation of the culmination of their knowledge and the project has fostered stewardship and ownership of the surrounding environment in both children and the community. The public exhibit at the garden attracted local media attention and many people see the outdoor exhibit every day, including visitors of the museum and student groups from other schools.

“The project blended art and science in such a creative and meaningful way,” said Museum Director Margie Marino. “Children and their families had the opportunity to make something beautiful and lasting while learning about the science in their backyards.”


The Synergy of Plants and Animals

The Garden Programs Coordinator used several activities from Project Learning Tree’s PreK-8 Environmental Education Activity Guide to support children’s learning.

“We did the Web of Life in the cold of February,” said Cirrelda Snider-Bryan, New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science Garden Programs Coordinator. “Everyone had to bundle up because temps were in the 20’s! We enjoyed this game immensely and played it many times in following weeks. Children enjoyed discussing what factors would influence the disappearance of a particular animal.”

Cirrelda also adapted the Senses component of PLT’s activity “We All Need Trees” found in the Environmental Experiences for Early Childhood guide. Instead of tasting apples, children processed Prickly Pears and drank the juice. “We recalled all the ways we’d seen animals eating these fruits during the fall and winter months, and children learned how the parts of cactus respond to other plants,” said Snider-Bryan.










Power of Partnerships

Many people came together during the project’s well-planned stages to support the young researchers/artists all year long: Kiwanis Club of Albuquerque, Mosaic Artists of New Mexico, Plants of the Southwest, Arizona Tile, Bethany Farms, as well as the Museum’s curator, education, and exhibit staff. These organizations provided supplies, such as native plant seeds and tiles for the mosaics. Every week, volunteers acted as mentors to the children, assisted them with researching the ways animals and plants interact, shared their knowledge of native plants and animals, and helped children construct their mosaic panels and the exhibit.

The project exemplified student decision-making and leadership, collective community efforts, and support from local partners, all of which are also requirements for a PLT GreenWorks! Service-learning grant.


Advice to Others

Here are some tips from Cirrelda Snider-Bryan who reflected on what made their project such a success:

  1. The process of meeting once a week each month, January through October, covering a wide array of tasks to produce these exhibits, stands out as very fruitful and positive.
  2. Interactions with partners and the parents, aunts, and grandparents of the children throughout the project. Their participation and support to the children made this project happen!
  3. Don’t be shy about approaching your local Kiwanis Club. The mission of Kiwanis is “to improve the world, one child at a time.”
  4. We set a rhythm where children know their ideas matter. It was children’s ideas that helped shape the plan and student leadership opportunities were snapped up.
  5. Lay out your whole year in advance, publish a calendar, and communicate regularly with your participants and your partners.
  6. Include notebooks in your budget for participants to keep a record of what they are doing or learning.
  7. Start your photo album with descriptions early. Don’t wait to add descriptions until the last minute of creating your final report!

For more information about PLT’s GreenWorks! grants program and to apply for a grant, visit

13 Inspiring Examples of Young Environmentalists Making a Difference

young-environmentalistsWhen we were young, it was easy to think that we’d have to wait until we’re older to make a difference since most of our role models were adults. As young environmental activist Ta’Kaiya Blaney said, “I always wanted to make a difference, but it was always along the lines of…when I grow up. It’s sad that it has to be this way but I realize I don’t have time to grow up before I want to make a change.”

It’s true – young students don’t need to wait until they’re older to make a difference. They can make real change now. Sometimes they just need to know it’s possible.

Here are 13 inspiring stories that show what’s possible when young environmentalists take action.


16-Year-Old Activist Reduces E-Waste at Home and Abroad


By the age of 16, Alex Lin had already influenced significant changes to reduce e-waste. After reading about e-waste in a Wall Street Journal article, he decided to take action.

Along with his community service team, Alex has overseen the recycling of 300,000 pounds of e-waste. They also successfully lobbied the Rhode Island state legislature to pass a bill in 2006 banning the dumping of e-waste. This bill paved the way for the producer responsibility bill, which passed in 2008, that puts more responsibility on electronic manufacturers.

The community service team’s work has gone global. They’ve helped establish similar teams in countries such as the Philippines, Mexico, and Kenya to reduce local e-waste.


High School Students Transform a Food Desert into a “Greenbelt”

In Houston, Texas, the East End serves some of the poorest students in the district and was known for being a “food desert.” Twenty local high school and college students have become “Green Ambassadors” since the program began three years ago. They have been trained and certified through Project Learning Tree’s early childhood and PreK-8 environmental outdoor education, and are among the first high schoolers to do so. These young leaders use their new knowledge and skills to transform their community.

Their goal is to provide more than 100,000 residents with fresh, natural foods. Their urban gardens will also be home to local wildlife and pollinators. They’re doing it by planting one fruit tree and one community garden at a time, linking their schools and neighborhoods to form a Houston East End Greenbelt.

In the fall of 2016, Furr High School won a $10 million grant through a new national contest sponsored by Lauren Powell Jobs to continue their work.


17-Year-Old Halts Plans for Solid-Waste Incinerator to be Built in Her Neighborhood


Growing up in the Curtis Bay neighborhood of Baltimore, many friends and family members of Destiny Watford suffered from asthma. She saw a link between the high rates of asthma and the air pollution from a local medical-waste incinerator, the coal pier, and several medical plants in the area.

When she was 17, a new solid-waste incinerator was scheduled to be built close to her high school. Destiny and a few other young people from her neighborhood pressured local officials to stop the project to prevent further air pollution from devastating their neighborhood. After three years of fighting, state regulators pulled the project’s permit in March 2016, halting the project.

Destiny’s work earned her the Goldman Environmental Prize for bringing attention to the consequences of environmental inequities. Now a college student, Destiny works for an organization called Free Your Voice and is working to reinstate air quality monitors in Curtis Bay.


Student Sustainability Group Leads Reforestation Effort

The “Students for Sustainability” club at Port Townsend High School in Washington State has helped reforest two local habitats. After learning about the state of their local watersheds, the high school students wanted to help improve the habitat for wildlife and water quality. To plan their reforestation efforts, they partnered with the Jefferson Land Trust and the Northwest Watershed Institute.

The students served as crew leaders for the Northwest Watershed Institute’s Plant-a-Thon events. Students from kindergarten through 8th grade plant several thousand trees during the event. To date, they’ve planted over 7,000 trees!


Young Environmental Activist, Speaker, and Singer Goes Viral, Influences Leaders

Fourteen-year-old Ta’Kaiya Blaney from the Tla’amin First Nation in British Columbia has cared about the environment as long as she can remember. She’s been singing since the age of four, and her songs about the environment have already gone viral. She has given speeches around the world, including Rio+20, TUNZA UN children and youth conference, the ONECA conference, and TEDxSFU. This young activist and singer is showing the world that the voices of youth deserve to be heard.


8-Year-Old Takes on Fast Food Chains to Save North Carolina Forests

When Cole Rasenberger was in second grade, he was assigned a homework project to write a letter to a local official on an environmental issue. While researching potential topics, he discovered the Dogwood Alliance’s website and learned that thousands of acres of North Carolina’s coastal forests are being destroyed daily, endangering local animals and plants.

Instead of just writing a letter, 8-year-old Cole wanted to take on the paper packaging industry. He partnered with Dogwood Alliance and organized his elementary school to sign postcards to ask McDonald’s to use recycled packaging. A few months and 2,500 handmade signed postcards later, McDonald’s decided to use more post-recyclable fiber, including 100% recycled fibers in their bags.

This win motivated Cole to do more, and he was ready to take on KFC. He partnered with seven schools, got the attention of media venues, and hand delivered over 6,000 postcards to KFC’s headquarters. It took several years before KFC agreed to use more recycled paper in its packaging, but Cole and the Dogwood Alliance didn’t give up.


Baltimore High School Students Help Transform Dumping Site into Reclaimed Wetlands

Student sitting on a dock with a barrel of oysters

Students from Ben Franklin High School in Baltimore, Md., are taking action to restore one of the more polluted areas of the city. In partnership with the Baltimore Aquarium and the Shores of Baltimore Land Trust, students are helping to transform Masonville Cove. This site was known for illegal industrial dumping and is now a model environmental education center and bird sanctuary on 54 acres of reclaimed wetlands.

Students planted 3,000 trees and bushes on the site, constructed a native wetland pond, raise and transplant bay grass, and “planted” oysters in underwater cages to help filter the water.


11-Year-Old Uses Art to Raise Money for Gulf Coast Relief Efforts


As a bird-lover, 11-year-old Olivia Bouler wanted to take action after seeing the effects of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. She partnered with the Audubon Society to sell over 500 paintings and sketches of bird species most affected by the spill. She raised over $200,000 for Gulf Coast relief efforts and released a book of her work to support Audubon’s conversation mission.


Earth Team Reduces Waste, Trash Removal Costs Through School-Wide Project

Two girls sitting next to painted recycling containersSt. Michael School middle school students in Livermore, Ca., were eager to address the issue of waste on campus. After receiving a GreenWorks grant from Project Learning Tree, they were able to implement a school-wide recycling program. They started by conducting a waste audit and established a plan to recycle different types of materials.

The students took the lead in designing posters, translating information into Spanish for the local Hispanic community, re-sorting trash as needed, and writing tips for students to take home to their families. In just one year, they reduced our trash removal costs by $1,200 and diverted about 40% of their waste from the landfill to composting and recycling centers.


Eighth-Graders Use Drones to Map Jersey City’s Trees


Ryan Nitschke, Samantha Cuevas, Dianna Carreon, Fritz Perera, and Daniel Rivera, eighth-graders at School 28 in Jersey City, have designed a project to use drones to map the city’s trees. Team D.R.O.N.E. (Drones Recording Our Natural Environment) pitched their project to classmates, teachers, and sponsors, and won $10,000 to implement their project through the national Lexus Eco Challenge.

The students attach 360-degree-angle cameras to drones to capture images and collect data on Jersey City’s trees. They are sharing their data with local organizations to help monitor the health of local trees and to identify ideal locations to plant new trees. They are currently in the second round of collecting data, to be completed in February 2017.


Students Convert Bus to Run on Biodiesel to Reduce Emissions

Group of students standing in front of their biodiesel busA few dozen high school students at City Academy in Salt Lake City, Utah, converted their school bus to run on biodiesel. Students started discussing alternative fuels while studying global warming and pollution. That’s when they came up with the idea of making their own biodiesel fuel from used vegetable oil for our school bus to reduce their school’s CO2 emissions. They received a start-up grant from Toshiba and a GreenWorks grant from Project Learning Tree to work on the project.

Their first year, the bus ran over 3,000 miles on fuel from used vegetable oil collected from a local restaurant. They were invited to present their project at a Green Ambassadors conference in Los Angeles. And yes, they took their biodiesel-fueled bus to get there!


Young Science Students Organize Local Environmental Conference


Under the guidance of science teacher Jane Orbuch, three high school students at San Lorenzo Valley High in California organized a local environmental conference. Science students Julianna Manseau, Kate Ussat, and Haile Davis set up the speakers, publicized the event, and worked with school personnel.

Both students and adults attended the conference, which featured presentations on their local watershed, ecosystem restoration, and the impact of regional droughts and higher temperatures. Sharing knowledge in these areas is a critical first step to making change, and these students are well on their way.


Young Climate Activist Influences Local and National Change

Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced ‘Shoe-Tez-Caht’) Martinez has been on the front lines of the youth-led environmental movement since the age of six when he began speaking around the world at venues such as the Rio+20 United Nations Summit and addressing the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York.

Currently the Youth Director of Earth Guardians, he has brought a lawsuit against the Obama administration for “their failure to protect the atmosphere and their future.” He has also worked locally to eliminate pesticide use in parks, contain coal ash, and stop fracking. He has received many awards for his activism, and was the youngest member of President Obama’s youth council.


How a 15-Year-Old Became the Face of the Youth Climate Movement


Greta Thunberg
Photo by Anthony Quintano

At the age of eight, Greta Thunberg first learned about the climate crisis — and understood the need to take action to mitigate the effects before it was too late.

To spark change, Greta launched the School Strike for Climate in 2018 to encourage students to skip school and demand their governments take action to reduce their carbon footprint and combat the effects of climate change. 

While in ninth grade, she staged a two-week strike outside the Swedish Parliament to demand the government cut emissions by 15% per year. 
Now on week 82, you can follow the updates of her strike on Twitter.

Greta’s climate advocacy has led her to speak at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poland, lead more than 1 million students around the world to protest climate change inaction, receive a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize, and be named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2019.


Do you know of any other young environmentalists doing great work? Please share in the comments!

A Rising Senior Starts a GreenSchools Program

High school students measure trees
High school students measure trees

Project Learning Tree’s GreenSchools program is a nationwide environmental service-learning program that gives students the tools they need to make their schools, homes, and communities greener and healthier. GreenSchools also helps students gain real-life experience in a variety of environmental fields, including energy and water conservation, landscape architecture, waste management, and environmental quality. 

Because of these benefits (and more!), I wanted to bring GreenSchools to my high school, George C. Marshall high school in Falls Church, VA. I thought it would be easy to get such a great program started, but it took a bit more effort than I thought. Read on to see how I helped GreenSchools take root at Marshall High…

Step 1:

I sent an email to my environmental science teacher to see if she wanted work with me to get GreenSchools started. She liked the idea, but it was her first year at the school so she couldn’t commit to it. So then I sent an email to the principal introducing the program and asking permission to start it. 

Tip #1: Keep in mind that administrators and teachers are typically overwhelmed with commitments and problems to solve! They may not respond right away, but be persistent – it will pay off! 

Step 2:

I sent another email to the principal inquiring about the idea. Still no response. So I decided to find a way to introduce the idea in person. Because the principal attends the PTSA meetings, I thought this would be a good way to discuss GreenSchools in person. 

At the PTSA meeting, the principal agreed that GreenSchools would be a good project! He then arranged a meeting with all the potential stakeholders, including the school district environmental coordinator and the school’s environmental science teachers. 

Step 3:

At the first meeting with stakeholders, I received permission to start the GreenSchools project! A retired environmental science teacher was at the meeting and she agreed to be the school sponsor for GreenSchools and offered to help get things going. She was already the head of the school’s Earth Force Club and thought this would be a natural fit for this club. In addition, the school district environmental coordinator felt that GreenSchools would be a good fit with other green initiatives already underway at schools throughout the county. These other initiatives include the district’s Get2Green program and the Green Schools Alliance. 

Furthermore, the International Baccalaureate (IB) environmental science teachers felt that the GreenSchool Investigations would give students ideas for class investigations, science fair projects, service opportunities, and IB essays. They were so impressed with the program and its potential that they both registered for the online GreenSchools professional development training.

Tip #2: Keep your PLT state coordinator in the loop. They can provide materials, resources, and local experts to help with the GreenSchools Investigations and professional development workshops. 

Step 4:

High school students measure the circumference of a tree on school grounds to determine the dollar value of the ecosystem services it provides.
GreenTeam Leaders Dana Dannhardt (left) and Leeann Soyka (right) measure the circumference of a tree on the school grounds to determine the dollar value of the ecosystem services it provides.

I held a kickoff meeting for all interested students and teachers during study hall. The meeting was advertised though an email to teachers and text messages to members of the school’s Earth Force Club, Envirothon group, Honor Societies, and Key Club.  It was also advertised through posters placed throughout the school. Members from all the clubs attended the meeting and they all agreed that they wanted to participate in GreenSchools. GreenSchools was officially underway with more than 50 interested students signed up to be on the Green Team! 

Tip #3: Provide snacks at meetings and get students’ cell phone numbers. Students pay more attention to and respond faster to text messages than emails. 

At the kickoff meeting, I circulated a sign-up sheet to gather contact information and showed the Welcome to GreenSchools! video available on YouTube. I also demonstrated how scientific tools could be used to help complete the investigations, including CO2 monitors, infrared temperature thermometers, and light meters. Oh, and snacks were provided!

Step 5:

Next steps included:

  • Assigning specific tasks to Green Team members; 
  • Gathering the necessary equipment and documents for each investigation;
  • Contacting school personnel to assist with the investigations; and
  • Scheduling when to conduct each investigation. 

Tip #4: To help with the Energy Investigation, find out if your school district has engaged an environmental auditor or energy consultant. If so, they should have detailed energy use data and may be willing to provide a behind-the-scenes tour of the school’s energy facilities. 

At the next meeting, we discussed how to involve additional clubs and classes in GreenSchools. For example, the marketing club could develop a social media campaign to spread the word about ways to save energy, the economics club could help analyze data and potential cost savings, and the computer science club could create a system to record collected data.

Tip #5: There’s nothing like a little high school competition to rally student involvement. Challenge a nearby high school to compete with your school to see who can save the most energy in 6 months!  

Stayed tuned for part 2 of this blog when I’ll share our progress! See the flier for how I advertised the kickoff meeting.

Students Galvanize Entire School Around Environmental Learning and Action

5th grade students teach 2nd grade students about composting

When two seventh-graders and three of their teachers participated in a PLT GreenSchools training session back in 2009, no one could have imagined that, in just two short years, the “Green Rivers” Team at Two Rivers Magnet Middle School in East Hartford, CT, would galvanize the entire school around environmental learning and action. Yet that is just what has happened – and much more.

In the first two years, the Green Rivers Team grew to more than 150 members—approximately one-third of the student body.

“Our Green Rivers club started as a grassroots thing, the idea of just two students. Now it involves the whole Two Rivers school community, and many different projects,” says Christie Hazen, the school’s Enrichment Coordinator and advisor to the Green Rivers team. “From the beginning, PLT’s GreenSchools program has helped our students grow in skills, leadership, and environmental awareness.”

In April 2016, Two Rivers Magnet Middle School received word it won a Green Ribbon Award from the U.S. Department of Education—as did Two Rivers Magnet High School! Considering only 73 institutions around the country (47 schools, 15 school districts, and 11 postsecondary institutions) were so honored, the fact that both schools received recognition is particularly noteworthy.

As middle school principal June Wnuk wrote in her nomination, “Two Rivers has and continues to work towards building a community of environmentally conscious citizens. Through classroom activities, field studies, and green practice, we strive to impress upon our students the importance of and need for making environmentally conscious choices, both when choosing products and disposing of them.”

PLT first visited with students and faculty at Two Rivers Middle a few years ago. Here is what we learned back then.

Action and Results

From the start, the Green Rivers team members set their sights on making a difference—not just in their school, but in their community and in their state.

“Their work has shown me all the things students can accomplish when they’re given leadership opportunities and a voice,” says Hazen. “Our projects are all focused on educating ourselves, the community, and getting our school to the ‘greenest’ it can be,” her students wrote in a collective blog post.

The team’s accomplishments include:

Presenting their work at a national conference

Students from Two Rivers Magnet Middle Schools in East Hartford, CT present at the National Science Teachers AssociationThe students prepared and delivered a presentation on their work through the GreenSchools program at a meeting of the National Science Teachers Association in Hartford, CT.

“Rather than being daunted by the challenge of presenting at a meeting where almost all the other presenters are adults, our students jumped right in,” says Hazen. “They were really excited, and spent every lunch hour before the meeting developing and rehearsing their PowerPoint presentation. They took complete ownership. I was there to give them support and help them with resources, but they really took charge of everything.”

“Admittedly, we were a little nervous, being the only people there under the age of 18 in a room full of adults,” said her students in their blog entry. “But our youthful energy worked to our advantage to help us keep everyone informed and interested. We think we did well; people were actively listening and they didn’t look like they wanted to fall asleep.”

Wind spireDeveloping an audacious action plan to save energy

The students used the PLT GreenSchools Energy Investigation to evaluate their school’s energy use. With financial support from a $6,000 PLT grant, the Green Rivers team researched and purchased a “wind spire” turbine to cut the school’s energy costs by harnessing wind energy.

The school’s administration was so impressed with the plan that they contributed $20,000 to retrofit the roof to accommodate the wind spire.

Developing leadership skills

Six students attended leadership training provided by the Alliance for Climate Education—training usually reserved for older high school students. Completing the training qualified them as ACE “Ambassadors” committed to keeping other Green Rivers club members engaged, active, and involved in both their school and their community. The things they have learned about climate science from their ACE training are helping inform their continuing efforts to save energy at their school, in their homes, and in the broader East Hartford community. Since attending the training, they have held community events and taught elementary school students the basics of recycling and composting.

Teaching young kids about the growing issue of tree damage from invasive species

Two Rivers Middle School students clean up waste on campus.The students developed a lively, humorous skit and YouTube video presentation about the damage cause by invasive species like the emerald ash borer and the Asian longhorned beetle. They used their skit —complete with beetle costumes—to teach younger students and community members about the threat the pests pose, as well as how to spot the early signs of tree damage. When they began, neither insect had entered Connecticut, but both have since been found.

“These youth were ahead of the curve in recognizing that this could be a problem here,” said Rachel Holmes, a forester with the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and a member of Connecticut’s PLT steering committee. “Our best hope for protecting our forests is for people to watch for signs of these insects so we can respond to an infestation before it becomes a widespread problem. This team is creating awareness of this problem in their own creative, enthusiastic way, and I am grateful for their efforts. They give me hope this message will be heard!”

Developing a Green Rivers website

The website is designed to keep the entire school community engaged in the team’s work.


  • Let students lead the way 

You’ll be amazed at what young people can accomplish. Like Two Rivers teacher Christie Hazen, be there to give your students support and help them with resources, but let them take charge of the projects they undertake. They will learn important lessons from both successes and setbacks.

  • Brainstorm resources together

With your students, brainstorm a list of groups and government agencies that could serve as resources to your GreenSchools program, and ways they might be involved. Invite these partners to make presentations at your school, mentor Green Team members, or become involved in other ways. In the case of Two Rivers, reaching out to the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection gave students access to the professional expertise of a forester, who provided both encouragement and additional resources.

  • Complete new, self-paced online training for an orientation to PLT GreenSchools

You’ll learn more about how this nationwide service-learning program can work for you and your students.

  • Access PLT’s GreenSchools Investigations online

A great way to begin using the PLT GreenSchools Energy Investigation is to collect data on the energy use at your school. What are you paying for electricity each month? Can you save money?

  • Think big and involve your whole school

The Two Rivers students were undaunted in their quest to install a wind spire on their school. With help from a PLT grant, and funds from the school’s administration, the project became a reality.

  • Encourage your students to think about ways to share their work

Help your students think about how they can share their progress with other students, schools, community organizations, and the media. The most powerful service-learning projects are those that widen the circle of those involved in making schools and communities greener.

Student-Led Projects Improve the Environment

Thanks to funding provided by the U.S. Forest Service in 2015, Project Learning Tree was able to award 63 GreenWorks! grants up to $2,000 each to involve students and community members in service-learning projects to improve an aspect of their local environment. Nearly 14,000 students—from early childhood through college—in 33 states and the District of Columbia took what they learned in the classroom and applied it to make a difference in their world. 

Read about four of these projects below. Proposals for the next round of grants will be due Sept. 30, 2016. To be eligible, applicants must have attended a PLT training. Application forms are available on the website.

University Students Create a Sensory Garden for Preschoolers

A boy spreads mulchIn Westville, Indiana, Purdue University North Central (PNC) early childhood education teacher candidates helped plan and build a children’s garden at Westville Little School to give preschoolers a place to explore the natural world and learn about nature. To start the project, PNC students participated in a PLT training to help them understand the importance of outdoor classrooms as a learning tool for young students.

Groups of service-learning and practicum students from PNC reached out to community partners for help with this project. Purdue Master Gardeners and the Purdue North Central Women’s Association taught the groups about effective gardening techniques, and students from Westville High School’s agricultural class helped gather seeds and build the garden beds. The garden includes plants with interesting textiles, scents, colors, and names to stimulate learning and development.

High School Students Restore Running Trails Around their School

High school students improve their school's outdoor classroomWith their Greenworks! grant, students at Thomas Stone High School in Waldorf, Maryland made their school’s outdoor spaces more accessible and enjoyable for community members. They took charge mapping and reconstructing sections of the running trail, applying their math, science, and landscaping skills. They created posters and PSAs and recruited volunteers to help with events such as Zumba in the Forest and a 9-11 Memorial 5K Walk/Run to showcase their project and get community members outside and participating in outdoor activities. 

The Black Leadership Council for Excellence, a local community group that empowers youth by developing leadership skills, career awareness, and civic participation, helped throughout. They also supplied gardening tools, installed new seating and a rain barrel at the school’s existing outdoor classrooms, and assembled a digital outdoor lesson plan book so teachers can incorporate outdoor learning into their lessons.

K-12 Special Education Students Make Maple Sugar

teacher tapping a maple treeElementary, middle, and high school students at St. Stephen’s Academy in Zelienople, western Pennsylvania worked together to collect sap and produce maple syrup for an annual Rip N’ Dip Festival where the community comes together for pancakes and maple syrup tasting and to learn about the maple sugaring process. Special education students from all grade levels participated in a variety of hands-on, outdoor activities throughout the six-month project. 

Younger students learned about trees, forests, wildlife, and forest products, and how to safely tap trees and collect sap. Older students learned how to transform the sap into syrup in the maple sugaring furnace, using their knowledge of math and chemistry to ensure the right humidity and temperature for the process. The students also developed peer and mentoring relationships to help teach and encourage one another. The students acted as greeters and tour guides at the Rip N’ Dip Festival where they were excited to describe their work and share their delicious syrup with family, friends, and community members. 

K-8 Students Create a Monarch Butterfly Garden, Collaborate with a School in Mexico

 A young girl waters a plant she has just planted to attract Monarch butterflies to her school in West Virginia.The Mountain Stewardship & Outdoor Leadership School in Morgantown, West Virginia works with Morgantown Learning Academy to provide K-8 students with in-class environmental education programs and after-school outdoor programs focused on nature awareness, stewardship, and leadership skills. With the help of a GreenWorks! grant, a student-led project explored the declining population of the Monarch butterfly and resulted in a new butterfly garden in the school’s Wild Yards area. The garden has received designations as a “Monarch Waystation” from Monarch Watch, and as a “Certified Schoolyard Habitat” from the National Wildlife Federation.

During a three-week classroom unit, students first learned about the Monarch migration and lifecycle, and reported sightings to Monarch Watch. They then chose a location and designed and built their butterfly garden complete with milkweed and nectar plants designed to specifically attract Monarchs. Every classroom raised butterflies. Summer camp students added butterfly baths, created signage, and painted a mural. Students also collaborated with a school in Mexico and Skyped, in Spanish, about each of their butterfly projects. It was incredibly powerful for the students to see the whole Monarch lifecycle unfold right before their eyes and to know they provided the habitat to make that happen.

For more information about PLT’s GreenWorks! grants program, visit

Photo 1: A boy spreads mulch.
Photo 2: High school students in Maryland improve their school’s outdoor classroom.
Photo 3: A teacher shows students in Pennsylvania how to tap a maple tree for sap that they then turned into maple syrup.
Photo 4: A young girl waters a plant she has just planted to attract Monarch butterflies to her school in West Virginia. 

Lessons Learned in a Closed-Loop System

students in catfish poolDead catfish. Electrical power failures. Not everything went exactly as hoped for Kris Galoci’s high school students at Grand Traverse Academy (GTA), a charter school in Traverse City, Michigan.

Yet according to her and her students, the setbacks in the closed-loop aquaponics system used in their project-based science class are part of the learning process. The system itself consists of a water tank inside a domed greenhouse in which fish and plants lead a beneficial co-existence. Galoci inherited the system when another teacher left GTA.

“I wanted to go beyond building and maintaining the system to create a substantial, rigorous curriculum,” Galoci said. She did this by introducing an entrepreneurial element to the class, letting students work their way out of the inevitable technical problems that arose, and using the system to discuss larger environmental issues.

Students as Entrepreneurs

students teaching studentsStudents in different grades can enroll in her environmental studies course, with older students taking on leadership roles. In addition to working on the system together, small groups design and develop projects using the system. For example, 11th grader Andrew Lasko built a vertical growing wall and flood drain system as a way to minimize the environmental footprint.

Galoci arranges for the students to present their ideas to business and community partners. “They have to convince ‘investors’ that their design can solve a problem, such as providing food or minimizing water usage,” Galoci said. “I bring in a business side to the class—that environmental solutions can bring value to the economy.” The “investors” are given play-money and make decisions about which ideas they find most valuable. The class then develops some of the winning ideas further. 

Galoci suggested that the student pages What Makes Up an Environmental Issue? and Analyzing the Issue from PLT’s secondary module Exploring Environmental Issues: Focus on Forests can help students prepare presentations about an environmental issue of their choice.

Ada Takacs, Michigan PLT coordinator, has listened to the GTA student pitches several times, and says she always comes away impressed. “It is amazing to see how the students mature from one year to the next, and see how their ideas, their demeanor, and their speaking skills grow,” she said. 

In 2014, PLT held its annual international conference in Traverse City. Takacs noted that GTA students (as well as younger students from Mill Creek Elementary School) made well-received presentations at the conference to educators, resource managers, national PLT leaders, and others. Through a grant from the Albert I. Pierce Foundation, a grant from the national PLT program, Forest Stewardship Initiative funds, and other support, Michigan PLT has provided support to GTA, Mill Creek, and other schools throughout the state for environmental education, particularly related to outdoor learning. 

Dealing with Setbacks

students building“Kids like project-based learning, but it has its challenges,” Galoci acknowledged. A typical 50-minute class period can present time-management issues, and she said her students often spend parts of their lunch periods or after school in the greenhouse.

Then there are issues like dead fish, such as when the electrical power went out for an extended period or when an automatic fish-feeding system failed.

“It all turns into a learning experience,” Galoci said. Recalling a small fish kill that occurred earlier in the year, she said, “I could have said, ‘here’s what happened, here’s how to fix it.’ But I decided to be hands-off and let them figure it out.” She also brought in the fact that while the dead fish were a disappointment for the class, “we discussed people who count on farming for their livelihood.”

Her students appreciate what they learn from this approach. “I learned that you have to think of every bad situation and try to fix it before the system has a problem,” said Lasko, commenting on his vertical systems. “Also I learned that taking my time and doing things the right way is the best way, and not taking shortcuts.”

Ella Bush, another student, applied lessons learned from dissecting a salmon to analyzing why the catfish died. “We lost some of our fish, and we had to discover what was wrong with them. By dissecting the salmon, I had a better understanding of what was going on in the [cat]fish system,” she said.

“The students come up with criteria that their systems should meet,” Galoci said. “Then usually, it’s design, build, back to the drawing board. The trial-and-error aspect is huge.” 

Extending the Learning

Beginning in 2015-2016, the aquaponics project became part of a course entitled Environmental Sustainability Engineering. Students used the greenhouse to grow algae for biofuels, for example, and move beyond food issues. “I want them to walk away from the class with the realization that we have a finite number of resources,” Galoci said. She said students are working toward zero-waste on the school campus through recycling, composting, and other measures.

Notes on Closed-Loop Aquaponics, Large and Small

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, aquaponics is a “hybrid food growing technology that combines aquaculture (growing fish) and hydroponics (growing veggies in non-soil media and nutrient-laden water).”

At Grand Traverse Academy, teacher Kris Galoci explained, a water tank stocked with catfish takes up about half of the ground space in a domed greenhouse on the school campus. They stock the tank with catfish. Students have experimented with different vegetables but have found most success with leafy greens, tomatoes, and peppers.

“The water passively heats during the day, and releases the heat during the night,” she said. “Fish waste in the water—which is converted by bacteria, so bacteria play a critical role—is converted into a usable form by the plants. The fish waste ultimately becomes fertilizer for plants. Cleaned water is returned back to the fish tank. We are producing food with the fish and also with the plants.”

Galoci noted schools that do not have the space or equipment for such a large system can adapt the system. “It can be done on a small scale inside a classroom, with a fish tank and a few plants,” she suggested.

Photos courtesy of Grand Traverse Academy.

School Garden Teaches Lessons on Composting and Water Conservation

planting fava beansAfter two years in the making, the sustainable school garden at Ladera Vista Junior High is in full swing.

One of the features of the sustainable garden and waste diversion program is vermicomposting. Students collect cafeteria waste and add it to a special bin where it is digested by worms. The worms’ “castings” create rich, organic compost to fertilize the vegetables the students grow in the school garden. 

The garden is made possible through GreenWorks grant and a partnership with U-ACRE (Urban Agriculture Community-based Research Experience). U-ARCE is a program through the university that partners undergraduate students with local community groups to improve urban food systems through research.

The older students use PLT activities and lessons with the younger students to connect the school garden with learning inside the classroom.

The program has benefits for students at the junior high school as well as the university. Ladera Vista now has a hands-on teaching tool – the school garden – and has become a GreenSchool. Undergraduate students participating in the program (called U-ARCE Mentors) also gain valuable research experience.

Sara Johnson, Program Director for U-ARCE, collaborated with Ladera Vista’s principal, teachers, and enthusiastic students to bring this project to life. The sustainable school garden project has yielded a rich harvest not only of home-grown vegetables, but also increased knowledge of potential food choices, and experiential learning opportunities assoicated with each of the PLT GreenSchools! Investigations.


Integrating PLT activities into the classroom

school garden

U-ACRE Mentors trained alongside Ladera Vista teachers in a PLT workshop to gain the necessary skills to work with the junior high students. They used PLT activities like “Pass the Plants, Please” and PLT’s GreenSchools! Investigations to present tutorials in the garden for the students twice a week.

“The Project Learning Tree curriculum has been instrumental in placing our work into an environmental education framework and connecting experiential learning opportunities to the Common Core,” said U-ARCE mentor Jose Gonzalez.  “In conjunction with PLT activities, students also learn about major environmental issues like climate change, drought, pollution, and waste and how they are specifically impacting California.” 


Learning about water conservation

“The lessons incorporated by PLT and the hands on experience in the garden have helped enforce the ideas that we wish to get across to students,” said U-ACRE mentor Cynthia Chavez. “These lessons are not only about plants, but also larger sustainability issues.” For example, students conducted PLT’s GreenSchools! Water Investigation to better understand how their school uses water and ways that water use could be improved. Within the garden, students learned about and used different methods of irrigation to see the implications each one had. 

“When students harvest produce from the garden it is washed in a sink that allows for the collection and recycling of excess water,” said U-ACRE Mentor Andrew Shensky. “Measuring the amount of water used to wash a few vegetables is often eye opening to students and gives them an understanding of how much water is used during everyday activities. Although students were familiar with drought, many were unfamiliar with the steps that can be taken to reduce their impact and the water investigation helped give students a well-rounded understanding of an environmental issue that is critical to the region they live in.”


Additional benefits from the school garden

In addition to teaching important science concepts to the younger students and research skills to their university counterparts, the U-ACRE project has helped reduce food waste and its related environmental impacts, which include methane emissions and water contamination. 

Vermicomposting also has increased the productivity of the Ladera Vista gardens. The partners are even exploring the potential for Ladera Vista to generate revenue by selling worm castings to organic gardeners interested in improving their soil without the use of commercial fertilizers. 

“We all have a challenge of making sure our students graduate, are employable and are promotable,” Johnson says of U-ACRE’s partnership with Ladera Vista. “That means we have to teach at the highest level and ensure that students can apply and assess information, not just memorize it.  PLT offers the kind of experiential learning that allows students to learn and teach at the highest level.”


Start your own vermicomposting project

earthworms in hand

Consider turning your cafeteria scraps into nutrient-rich mulch for gardens. Vermicomposting is a variation of traditional composting that utilizes worms to convert organic waste into fertilizer.

The fertilizer produced through this process, also known as “worm castings” or “vermicast,” have several benefits over commercially available mulch and fertilizers: The castings contain higher concentrations of nutrients, and mucus from the worms helps garden soil retain its moisture.

Red wiggler worms are most commonly used.  They can process their own weight in food scraps every day provided they are well fed and cared for.

The worms’ diet has to be carefully monitored.  They can only eat fruits and vegetables, bread and napkins; no fatty foods, dairy, or meat. 

Would you like to start a vermicomposting project at your school or in your community?  Apply for a GreenWorks! grant from PLT

From Food Desert to Food Forest

Furr High School Tree Planting Houston GreenBeltThe 11 elementary, middle, and high schools located in the East End of Houston, Texas, serve some of the poorest, most at-risk students in the Houston Independent School District. Like many urban areas, Houston’s East End is a “food desert,” where fresh, affordable produce is hard to find, while unhealthy foods from convenience stores and fast food restaurants are widely available. The combination of urban pollution and unhealthy foods have led to an epidemic of diabetes, obesity, and associated illnesses in the East End.

Through a youth-led “Green Ambassador” program rooted in the environmental education curriculum of Project Learning Tree (PLT), students from East End schools are aiming to change their neighborhood, the broader Houston community, and the world for the better.

Their goal: to transform their community from a food desert to a food forest that can supply the East End’s more than 100,000 residents with fresh, natural foods while also providing nourishment and shelter for wildlife and pollinators.

They’re doing it by planting one fruit tree and one community garden at a time, linking their schools and neighborhoods to form a Houston East End Greenbelt.

From Food Desert to Food Forest

Emerson Houston Green Belt AmbassadorEmerson Hernandez, a student at Furr High School, joined the school’s PLT GreenSchools’ Green Team in ninth grade. The program sparked a passion to work with his classmates and other participating GreenSchools to transform his Houston community into a thriving green corridor. “Through PLT you’re empowering people to take action, to do something for their neighborhood. And while you’re doing it, you’re learning all kinds of other things—math, social studies, history, science, and writing,” says Hernandez.

To date, Hernandez, his classmates, and teachers have planted more than 200 trees all over the East End of Houston, created and tended more than 200 vegetable garden beds in the community, and raised approximately 3,000 pounds of collard greens, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables that have been donated to area food banks.

“Emerson is such a phenomenal young leader,” says Tamberly Conway, who serves as Partnerships, Diversity and Inclusion Specialist at the U.S. Forest Service, which partners with PLT GreenSchools in Texas and nationwide. “He can speak to adults and peers alike. He’s been an incredible role model, not just for fellow students but also for adults. His passion and love shine through.”

students with woodsy owl

A Network of Schools and Community Partners

Creating the East End Greenbelt is a big undertaking, but with the support of numerous partners,the vision is becoming a reality. In addition to PLT and the U.S. Forest Service, the students’ partners include the Latino Legacy program of the Friends of National Forests and Grasslands in Texas, the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, and the Arbor Day Foundation’s “Nature Explore” program.

Two elementary schools, three middle schools, and two high schools are participating in the project. Of these, Lantrip Elementary is an environmental education magnet school and is a natural fit for the PLT curriculum, while the Furr High School’s Green Institute is focused on preparing students for careers in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and environmental communications.

The Green Ambassador Model: “Youth Leading Youth”

The high school students serve as stewards, teachers, and mentors to the elementary and middle school students. “Emerson exemplifies the kind of student leadership that the PLT GreenSchools program is trying to promote,” Conway notes. “GreenSchools provides students with opportunities that will help them on their pathway to higher education, careers, or simply as conservation leaders. I’ve seen this program change people’s lives.”

David Salazar and Juan Elizondo are agriculture instructors at Furr HS. They are both former high school classmates from the East End who returned to their community to teach. “We started noticing that most teachers don’t live in the community, so afterschool programs couldn’t get going because teachers sometimes live two hours away and need to get home after school,” says Salazar. “Our high school students stepped in as Green Ambassadors to fill the need for afterschool programs. The model is of youth leading youth, with students teaching each other how to learn and how to think.”

“The fact that this program is entirely youth-led makes it really interesting to other students,” says Elizondo.

Houston GreenBelt Student Leaders

Green Ambassadors—20 of them have been trained since the program began three years ago—are themselves at-risk high school and college students, who are gaining leadership skills and confidence through their role as teachers and mentors to younger students, and as community and national spokespeople for the PLT GreenSchools! program. These Green Ambassadors are some of the first high school students to obtain professional training and certification through PLT in early childhood and PreK- 8 environmental outdoor education, according to Salazar.

The program has been well received by school administrators. Magdalena Strickland, the Principal at Lantrip Elementary, is thrilled to have the Green Ambassadors come to her school to use PLT, because it makes her school more marketable to students and parents who want to be part of its environment-focused program,” Salazar notes.

Environmental Justice

Cruz Houston Green Belt AmbassadorA group of eight Green Ambassadors and their youth and adult leaders were invited to Washington, D.C., to talk about their work at the National Environmental Justice Conference. One of them, Luis Cruz, told conference attendees how being a PLT Green Ambassador had changed his life. 

“I really wanted to quit high school before I joined PLT in my freshman year,” explains Cruz, a senior at Furr HS. “I wasn’t fluent in English. I had failed five classes. When I first joined the program, and now as a leader, I realize that I had to push through the struggles and challenges. The PLT program has changed my life in so many ways. I have gone from a person who didn’t speak or write English very well, to actually designing a curriculum on pollinators and writing grants for other schools. PLT and being a Green Ambassador gave me a chance to prove that I could do things.”

Cruz and the other Green Ambassadors understand that what they are doing is critical to the East End community. “Our parents are suffering from diabetes, cancer, and all kinds of illnesses,” Cruz notes. “We have all these fast-food restaurants that are the only choice. Fresh foods have to come from far away. We’re creating green spaces and encouraging others to create their own gardens and grow their own food.” 

The students’ work on the East End Greenbelt “is what environmental justice is all about,” says his teacher, Juan Elizondo. “Environmental justice requires fair and equal access to fresh natural foods. That’s what our Green Ambassadors are trying to achieve.”  

Green Program Tips from David Salazar and Juan Elizondo

  • Choose a facilitator with high energy and passion. If you have that, the students will follow your lead.
  • Give students the ability to be leaders. Give them responsibility. You have to give them the ownership of their own future. Give them the autonomy to be in charge of this movement and set the stage for their younger peers.
  • Be resourceful—you can’t take something and create it out of nothing. Pull in partners. Bring in everyone and use everyone’s energy. Know the resources that are already on the ground.
  • Be mindful that programs like this take some time to grow, just like a plant. Teachers and the school are the soil, the students are our crop. We need to provide all the nutrients for the plant to grow and be healthy and strong. 
  • Encourage administrators to be committed, engaged and patient. They’ll see a lot of great things happen, but they won’t happen immediately. Over time they will see the results they’re looking for.

Student Videos

Hear from the students and teachers who transformed the food desert into a food forest.

– “Fruits of the Houston East End Greenbelt” 

– Furr HS and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Lockwood Nature Garden”