Have you ever noticed how much more kids learn when they are doing something fun and interesting rather than just reading a textbook? While both are important, I've had good luck working in the field with my daughter Annie. A little gentle guidance helps her in an active, science-based inquiry that can achieve results and teach her how to be an environmental advocate at an early age.
In one experiment, Annie set out to identify the places in our town that had the highest air pollution. She posted pollution receptors -- actually circles of white construction paper smeared with petroleum jelly -- in places we thought would have varying degrees of air pollution. These included her backyard tree house, the town's main intersection, her school playground and a parking lot adjacent to the playground where school buses are parked. Predictably, the highest level of pollution was at the main intersection, the lowest in Annie's tree house. But there were higher levels of pollution in the school playground than she expected. Annie did a second test; these findings were consistent with the first. We concluded it was the proximity of the bus lot that caused the high pollution levels in Annie's playground. This got her thinking, and determined to do something. We went online and studied the adverse health consequences of exposure to particle pollution -- those small pieces of dirt visible with a magnifying glass on Annie's circles. The sobering fact is they can cause lung cancer, emphysema, even early death.
Annie presented her results to school officials, asking them to install new pollution-control devices that would reduce diesel emissions both inside and outside the buses. It turns out many school buses have interior air quality that fails health standards. Annie stuck to her guns for almost a year before she got results. The local newspaper interviewed her about the project, the impacts of pollution on children's health and the need to make buses safer. We also kept in touch with school administrators. Ultimately, they installed catalytic mufflers on the district's entire fleet of buses.
Annie learned that by bringing science to bear, meeting with officials and getting visibility for a cause -- the basic elements of environmental advocacy -- you can achieve results. She also became a minor celebrity in the community. Her county legislator even gave her a commendation. She soon tired of all the adulation and returned to being a normal kid. But she learned a good lesson -- one that will stick with her for a lifetime.
Help your children learn similar lessons this summer. For project ideas, log onto www.sciencebuddies.org or www.nwf.org, or pick up a copy of the book Outdoor Science Projects for Young People by George Barr. School may be out, but our kids' learning can continue -- and our planet's future can be assured.
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