By Isiah REYES
tudents in Dominique Evans-Bye’s environmental geographic information science class at Clark Magnet High School have won first place in the final challenge of the Lexus Eco Challenge. The team includes seniors Virginia Aviles, Henry Bagumyan, Laura Dandachi, Xochil Garcia, Kamran Jahadi, Trevor Norman, Biura Markarian, Maya Ramamurthy and Mary Rshtouni.
The Lexus Eco Challenge is a STEM contest for students in grades six to 12 built on environmental issues and practical solutions. This year’s Kelp Huggers team won the regional contest with a project to identify and collect underwater trash at the Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard. They used an underwater remote-operated vehicle to find the trash and used Instagram to get the word out on the dangers of litter to river and marine life.
“The project required me to apply skills I’ve learned in biology, chemistry and English classes such as scientific research procedures and effective communication,” said Kelp Hugger member Ramamurthy. “The project was a lesson in team management, data collection and organization. I have gained valuable experience in leadership and other skills that most high school students do not acquire in a traditional classroom.”
To help spread the word about their work, the team and teacher advisor Evans-Bye started a movement to “Bust the Bead” that educated people about the problem of microplastics in the ocean. They created posters, which they sent to 55 different schools and organizations around the world, with a lesson plan culminating in students signing the poster to pledge not to use products containing microbeads.
Finally, the team increased contributions to the social media movement Litterati and picked up over 3,500 pieces of trash in collaboration with project partners around the globe. They also examined sand, and the digestive and respiratory tracts of bait fish to document the presence of microplastics in the local environment. The Kelp Huggers found several pieces of plastics in the samples they worked with.
This phase of the competition brought the team of nine students $15,000 and a grand total this year of $25,000.
“I’ve been working on this program since its inception and I would say the students get amazing teamwork opportunities in addition to making a difference in their community,” said editorial director of Scholastic National Partnership Jessica Quinones. “It’s not just a matter of coming up with the idea but it’s a matter of implementing the idea and then reporting back on the results. So teams really commit anywhere between six to eight weeks to complete a project and see it through to the end. So they are making a difference and they’re seeing tangible results.”
The idea behind the challenges is to do more than just memorizing facts by engaging students in a project that allows them to see how hard work can leave a social imprint on the community. For example, middle schoolers in New Jersey reduced their community’s mosquito population by adding holes to garbage cans while Ohio students studied fracking in their town and applied their findings to help people in rural Guatemala. Through this competition, students build a deeper understanding of concepts taught in school and really enjoy the process of making a difference for the environment.
The focus is on project-based learning and teamwork as teams compete for scholarships and grants. The teams go through multiple steps before the project is complete. The first step is to choose the right topic, then comes creating an action plan and lastly the teams must reach out by doing public service announcements or by writing letters to government officials and environmental organizations.
Overall, $500,000 was awarded this past year and, since the competition was created by Scholastic and Lexus eight years ago, $5.5 million in scholarships have been awarded.
In the past, Clark’s Eco Challenge teams have tested for heavy metals in the Los Angeles harbor and shared their findings with divers up and down the coast, including Navy S.E.A.L.s who spend a lot of time in those waters. Evans-Bye’s teams have won first prize at the regional level five times out of eight. In 2011, the Eco-Savers team won the grand prize with a project identifying and mapping contaminants in lobster from around the world.
The future of all the students involved with Evans-Bye’s class is very bright.
“I know my involvement with the Lexus Eco Challenge will be useful in college and future endeavors,” said Ramamurthy. “I have always been interested in doing environmental research and am thankful for being given the opportunity to make a quantifiable difference.”