The word sustainability doesn’t always roll off the tongues of 10-year-olds.
Likewise, the concept of sustainable living — a lifestyle meant to reduce society’s use of the Earth’s natural resources — isn’t so easy for children to wrap their heads around.
But these 35 Vermont Avenue Elementary School 4th and 5th graders get it.
“If you don’t recycle, trash will be all over the place,” said Vermont 4th grader Cindy Morales, while applying Maya blue paint to a truck, a “Mobile Mural Lab,” carrying art supplies.
“Not the license plate!” hollered David Russell, Mobile Mural Lab co-creator, after one child began meticulously covering the plate in bright blue.
Nearby, children were painting on a wall “Vermont Goes Green!”
“If the Earth isn’t clean, we could all get sick,” Morales said, before adding, “because of all the dust.”
Student teaching assistants in USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project (JEP) recently visited Vermont to teach Morales and the other children about sustainability. As part of the USC Young Scientists Program (YSP), JEP students who are studying science educated the children about environmental stewardship and helped conduct a three-hour workshop. During the workshop, children painted a mural in an area where recycling bins would be placed. They also painted the bins with messages about going green.
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Dieuwertje “D.J.” Kast is a progressive master’s marine environmental biology student and biological sciences senior in USC Dornsife. She participates in YSP because she said science education is vital.
"Due to budget cuts, it's getting harder for elementary schools to teach science,” Kast said. “But through this program, we can create the next generation of inquisitive young minds. I want to share with them my love for science and I hope that my passion inspires them to excel in not only school, but in life.”
Tammara Anderson, JEP executive director, stopped by the workshop to interact with the children. She was thrilled to see the young students busily working to build the new recycling center.
“They’re excited about learning something new,” Anderson said. “This is opening up a whole new world for them. This kind of activity makes kids excited about school.”
Anderson said after learning about sustainability, students were encouraged to share their lessons with their families and friends.
“The children have become ‘green ambassadors,’ ” Anderson said. “They can go home and teach their parents.”
Nadine Afari, director of YSP, said the program is site specific — JEP students address each school’s unique concerns. Children at L.B. Weemes Elementary School will learn about nutrition and receive yoga lessons when YSP and the USC Department of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy visit their campus. Because of budget cuts, Vermont is down to one janitor, so all students are needed to pitch in to keep the campus clean.
“We’ve lost four janitor positions in the past two years,” said Victor Sanchez, Vermont’s Title 1 coordinator. “So we have one janitor doing the job of five. We’ve really revamped our parent volunteer program. We have parents and children volunteering to pick up trash in the mornings before school starts. This kind of program helps tremendously.
“It takes a village — and then some.”
Before the workshop, Afari gave a classroom lesson on the importance of preserving the environment with concrete examples of how to “reduce, reuse and recycle.” Afari, a lecturer in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, discussed reducing carbon footprints, touching upon the dangers of greenhouse gases produced by fossil fuels for electricity, heating, transportation, among other uses.
Afari handed students index cards to write what they learned in the classroom lesson. Their answers offered creative interpretations of sustainability.
“I would like to use old tennis balls to make something new,” Lucia Barrera wrote. Christopher Juarez decided, “When I grow up, I want to go hiking.” Crystal Cardenas scrawled, “You should always switch off the lights.” Ronald Ortiz quickly made his point: “I like riding a bike.”
Fourth grade Vermont teacher Christine Phillips said students were taking ownership over the concept of being green.
“It doesn’t stop here,” Phillips said. “We’ll be following up to make sure the kids are using the recycling bins. We want to get other schools involved and spread the message.”
The message was clear to 10-year-old Charlotte Livingston.
“Sometimes animals like birds and turtles can eat plastic bags and bottles on the floor,” Livingston said. “They could get sick and sometimes die. If I see anything on the floor, I’ll pick it up and put it either in the plastic or paper recycling bin.”
When asked what “reuse, reduce and recycle” means, Skylar Carter, 10, responded, “It means turning an old tire into a table, or tearing up a baseball and making a bracelet out of the leather.”
Putting the finishing touches on the butterfly she was painting on a wall, Ivonne Zepeda said she wanted to “help the environment be green.” And what does that mean?
“It means helping the Earth be green,” Zepeda said. “So when we’re big, we can still see the green hills.”