In a plastic bin, kindergartner teacher Lori Gardner pushes around some cut-up pieces of newspaper and soil to find her class’ hardworking worms.
“There’s a baby!” said Ameyah Westbrook, kindergartner at Mann Elementary, as she leaned over the bin with a contagious smile. “We’ll put it next to the bigger one, and they can be a family.”
The students at Mann Elementary, 4047 Juniata St., are not just playing house with the worms. The critters in the class compost bin have a much bigger job.
“They eat our trash,” said kindergartner Bryan Nguyen, meaning that worms help turn the students’ food scraps into rich soil.
Gardner is now leading Mann’s schoolwide conservation efforts, after she recently became the school’s liaison for the Saint Louis Public School District’s pilot Go Green Challenge program. More than 20 schools participate in the program, where they compete for conservation “challenge points” for things like recycling and student-driven energy and water assessments.
Ultimately it’s another opportunity to get students interested in math and science, said Lisa Williams, the district’s energy manager who is leading the effort.
“If you can get them excited about math and science, they will be okay,” said Williams, whose position is contracted through Aramark.
A mechanical engineer, Williams has been tracking and managing the district’s utilities for the past four years. But recently when she visited her hometown of Detroit, a friend of hers told her about the local school district’s conservation initiative. This past fall, she presented the Go Green idea to district leaders and, by September, she had launched the pilot.
At first, she started off by inviting principals and teachers who she knew had an interest in conservation. “You have to have the teachers be excited about it,” she said. “You can’t make them do it.”
Once she had a handful, she designed a challenge sheet and started sending out opportunities for teacher training and resources.
Mann recently received a grant from the Monsanto Fund for $1,500 to build a pond and natural habitat, with prairie grass and native plants. The whole school chose the spot, and the children took turns helping to dig the hole, said Mann Principal Nicole Conaway.
“They didn’t get down far enough,” Conaway said, laughing, but students were the decision-makers on the project.
The third-grade class is charged with getting the area certified as a natural habitat. Students are currently filling out an application and sending in pictures. “Living in the city, they didn’t realize it’s something that they could do,” Conaway said. Many parents also didn’t know it was a possibility, she said.
Mann’s conservation efforts total lots of little ongoing things, from collecting plastic bags to repurposing junk as artwork, she said.
At Gateway STEM High School, Williams has been helping four seniors with their final projects. The students reached out to Williams because they were looking to do a utility audit on the school. Williams put them in touch with Tremco Inc., and the company’s director of energy spent a day with the students explaining how to go about the audit.
On another day, another person from the company showed the students how to do tests on air barriers, because the school has a problem with half of the building being hot while the other half is cold. Now the company reps are coming out about twice a month to work with the students.
“They told me, ‘We want to make sure they get an A,’” Williams said. “They are really excited to work with the students.”
Aside from the challenge, Williams feels that partnering companies with schools is another important part of the program.
“I had a program that exposed me,” said Williams, recalling a program that planted the seed of an engineering career at her elementary school in Detroit. “I saw how great it is to have people come back and work on a topic.”
The program will finish up its pilot phase this spring, she said, and then next fall all schools will receive an official invitation to join the program. After working in energy management for years, Williams said the program has a special significance for her personally.
“This Go Green initiative is an opportunity for me to work with students more directly,” she said, “because I know how important it is.”