Challenging Kids To Save The Planet

Want to get kids interested in science? Show them how they can use it to better the world they live in. Take Jathan Kron, Justin Roth and Brennan Nelson, three middle school students from West Branch, Iowa. Jathan, age 12, was helping his father sweep out his auto repair shop, and notices that he was throwing away all these lead wheel weights that are attacked to tires for stabilization. The weights fall off cars all the time, making them one of the biggest sources of lead released into the environment.
Jathan and his two friends, together with their science teacher, discovered that the lead weights are completely unregulated and started measuring how much of the lead is leached into the environment.

Using this data they began a campaign to replace the lead weights with steel. Three bills banning the weights have been introduced in the Iowa legislature and the Environmental Protection Agency is considering a similar ban. To top it all off, the boys won the grand prize in the inaugural year of the “We Can Change The World Challenge” sponsored by the Siemens Foundation in partnership with Discovery Education and the National Science Teachers Association.

Over 2000 middle school students from across the US entered the challenge last year; this year it has been expanded to include elementary school students, and in 2010 high schoolers can enter. The contest requires teams of two to three students under the mentorship of a teacher or other adult to identify an environmental issue in their community, research the issue using scientific investigation, and create a replicable green solution. The winners receive a $5000 savings bond, an appearance on the Planet Green cable network and the chance to present their findings to a panel of United Nations environmentalists.

Second place for the 2009 prize went to three girls from St, Philip the Apostle School in Addison, Ill., Angel Lozzio (13), Maggie O’Brien (12) and Data Gattone (13). “We started because we wanted to make a difference,” says Maggie, and their solution was to figure out how to get their town and school to recycle. They dropped off flyers and handed out recycling bins, carefully monitored the response, and discovered that recycling participation started to soar. “We were really amazed that we could make this much of a change,” says Angel.

The enthusiasm these kids feel about their projects is infectious, and makes me feel a little better about the future. For all the wailing about the state of our schools, the declining science and math skills of our students, the fixation on TV and video games over books and larger world, the fact is it seems like plenty of America’s children are engaged, industrious and full of ideas. We adults just have to figure out how to harness that energy, and keep the enthusiasm flowing. If a friendly competition is what it takes, then kudos to the Siemens Foundation (which also sponsors the prestigious Siemens Competition in Math Science and Technology).

Year two of the Siemens Change The World Challenge kicked off on Aug. 19. Entries can be downloaded at www.wecanchange.com .

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