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Going Green: Middle School Youth Learn About Sustainability

Posted by Ryan Driscoll, Education

Note from the Editor: Each term, ZooCrew empowers middle school youth to become conservation leaders by providing science learning experiences that inspire them to learn, care, and act through after school and summer expanded learning opportunities.

Through the ZooCrew programs, we excite youth from communities across King County about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects by engaging with real-world conservation issues, preparing them for continued involvement in Woodland Park Zoo’s youth programs, and inspiring them to consider a broad range of STEM and conservation careers. We believe engaging these students, as well as youth across Washington state, is key to solving current conservation issues in our own backyard and around the world.

What does the word sustainability mean?  That was the question we asked during the ZooCrew Summer Learning Program, and 22 middle-school students from across Seattle came up with some great definitions:
  • To continue to do something indefinitely without causing harm
  • To be able to reuse something again and again that lasts into the future
  • To keep balance of nature and human action

Over two four-week sessions this summer, we focused on exploring the personal actions that we can all take to make our lives greener.  We used both the zoo and field trips across the city to explore topics such as food impacts, water waste, and living with urban wildlife.  From planning and cooking their own lunches with sustainability in mind to creating phone-based video games to teach people about what they could do, students took full advantage of this free program funded by the Families & Education Levy through the City of Seattle Department of Early Learning.  By the end of the summer, the next generation of conservation leaders returned to their communities ready to share tips of living greener with their peers and neighbors.

Team Building
We started our program with an overnight camping trip to the Key Peninsula.  There, we focused on the different types of leadership that each youth brought to the group and asked them to “step up and step back” so that everyone could have a chance to grow as a leader.  We proceeded to put this to the test the next day with some team building exercises.  We also spent some time bonding through kayaking and paddle boarding in the sound, lots of games, and far too many s’mores around the campfire.  After getting to know each other and forming a tight-knit team, we were ready to delve into our summer topics.

Getting across a series of platforms with just two boards takes a little planning and lots of cooperation.  
Rock-paper-scissors solves all disputes in ZooCrew including who gets to use the kayak next!

Owen needed to test a couple of s’mores before he was willing to give them his approval.

Arguably no age group is more concerned with food than middle schoolers.  With that in mind, the first topic we delved into was where our food was coming from and the impact that different foods have on the environment.  Armed with this information, students paired off and created their own menus for different lunches throughout the summer.  Not only did they have to justify why their meals were taking sustainability into account, but they had to make a shopping list, plan out their cooking and prep times, and help staff cook the meal!  Chicken adobo, fish tacos, and mac and cheese were some of the many dishes students cooked up, and they were often accompanied by local, seasonal fruits.  Needless to say, this was a highlight for many of the students.

Joel brought in his mother’s famous fish taco recipe.  He took on the battering while Andre took care of frying.
Chicken adobo, rice with broccoli, and seasonal fruit smoothies!  It was a busy day in the kitchen!
We spent the rest of the week focusing on other food sustainability issues including waste and composting (including a trip to visit Dr. Doo and the zoo compost yard), pesticide use at the Molbak’s Butterfly Garden, and sustainable practices around foods like palm oil and cocoa.  Of course, this had to include a tour of Theo’s chocolate to talk about the work involved in setting up a sustainable, organic, and fair trade food supplier.  The students didn’t seem to mind that this also involved sampling some of the chocolate!  We also got to visit the Tilth Alliance’s newly renovated space in Rainier Valley and discuss what it takes to grow our own food here is Seattle.

Learning about fair trade chocolate is made far more interesting when it gets mixed with samples!
Butterflies and other pollinators are important contributors to many of the foods we eat.
Living in the rainy northwest, water conservation is not always on the tops of our minds.  However, the recent dry summers have helped to highlight the importance of this issue, and students were shocked to see how much water they were using for many of their daily tasks like showers and flushing the toilet.  After some debates around the feasibility of taking less than a 10 minute shower, we also took a trip to the aquarium to learn about the steps they are taking to conserve not only water but the animals that need that water around our area.

Urban Wildlife
While we often think of the amazing natural places around our city as where most of the animals live, we have many urban residents in our own neighborhoods.  After a tour of the Northern Trail at the zoo to learn about coexisting with carnivores like wolves and bears, we went out into local parks with Mark Jordan, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science at Seattle University.  Professor Jordan showed us how to set up camera traps and shared what he had found from studying the carnivores that live in the parks around the city.  We also visited the Burke Museum where we got a behind-the-scenes tour of the bird and mammal collections as we talked about how research collections can help us study how animals have changed over time.

Students explored Seward Park looking for signs of wildlife after seeing some images of them from Professor Jordan’s camera traps.
Collection manager Jeff Bradley took ZooCrew behind the scenes to explore how research collections like those at the Burke can help us understand how animals have changed over time.
Consumption and Waste
From cell phones and computers to clothes and fidget spinners, youth today are the prime audience for many consumer goods.  After discussing how many of these products are designed in a way that make then obsolete or unusable after a certain amount of time, we discussed different ways we could reduce the amount of waste we use and encourage the reuse of things around us.  We followed this up with a trip to Gasworks Park to discuss re-purposing and recycled art.  

Zoo Time
When we weren’t off on field trips, we were enjoying out time on zoo grounds looking at animals and getting to go behind the scenes and talk with zoo staff.  We got to visit the commissary where we learned about how the zoo gets the food for all its animals and how it is prepared.  We took a tour of the greenhouse to learn about the ‘compost tea’ the zoo uses to fertilize many of the plants on exhibits and grounds.  Finally, we also got to visit ambassador animals and learn about what it takes to care for animals that interact with the public.  

Xavier decided he wanted to stay in the greenhouse and live with the plants.
Through all of this, students were working in groups to put together a geo-location based game that people could play on their cell phones using a program called Taleblazer.  Pulling on the short stories we read during the summer as well as our discussion with Earthgames founder Dargan Frierson from the University of Washington, student created their own story that allowed people to interact with characters and solve mysteries while the physically moved around the zoo.  Their creativity was showcased by the variety of stories, characters, and even artwork that was used.

A screenshot from “Sustainability, The Manga”, one of the many games created this summer.  Dan had a lot of fun creating all the characters himself.

At the end of the program, participants invited their families to the zoo to show off their games and enjoy an evening looking at animals.  We want to send out another thank you for all the work that ZooCrew parents and guardians put in to help make the program run smoothly this summer.  We also wanted to thank all the zoo staff and community organizations that helped provide such a great experience this summer.  We look forward to a new topic and some new adventures next summer with our next summer ZooCrew group!  Until then, look for ZooCrew this fall at select middle schools in the area.