From garbage to glasses: Helping Flint with place-based learning

  • Oct 18, 2018
  • smart technologies, secondary education, sustainability, Staff, Faculty
  • Exclusive, Homepage Hero, Alumni, Faculty & Staff, Research, College of Natural Science, EES
Image of K-12 teachers at a sustainability workshop
Ali Rose Van Overbeke (front left) wearing the prototype glasses made from discarded Flint water bottles, with Jane Rice (front right) and workshop participants wearing paper copies of the eyeglass design. Courtesy photo.

Bottled water has become a way of life for the residents of Flint, Mich., ever since the Flint water crisis began in 2014. But once the water is used, what happens to all those empty plastic bottles? Michigan State University (MSU) Department of Earth and Environmental Science’s Jane Rice and Joyce Parker sought to answer that question with a group of 28 K-12 teachers.

The workshop, “Sustainable Use of Natural Resources,” is the education portion of a $5 million U.S. Department of Agriculture/National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant to support a study on the development and promotion of water, and nutrient and climate smart technologies to help agricultural systems adapt to climate and societal changes.

A group of secondary teachers gathered at the MSU Union in May 2018 for the three-day workshop that was based on the K-12 Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which embraces 3-D learning—cross-cutting concepts, science practices and core ideas—as part of a place-based learning model.

“So, rather than studying human impacts on the Amazon rain forest, you study impacts right here in our community, and that leads eventually to students being able to make decisions that actually have meaning for their own lives,” Rice explained.

During the workshop, teachers were asked to evaluate five different methods of dealing with the leftover water bottles, and then choose the most effective method. The choices were littering, landfilling, burning, recycling or upcycling. The group consensus was upcycling—reusing the material to produce a product of higher value.

The teachers were then treated to a visit from a guest speaker who is putting upcycling into practice. Ali Rose Van Overbeke is the co-founder of Genusee, a Flint, Mich., based company that makes eyeglasses from discarded Flint plastic water bottles. Fifteen single use water bottles are upcycled with every eyeglass purchase.

“I was volunteering with the Red Cross,” she said. “We were delivering cases and cases and cases of bottled water to people in Flint. And I was taken aback by how much plastic I was seeing daily. That’s how I got the idea.”

The overall reaction from participants was enthusiastic. Whitney Vanoost, a teacher at Western International High School in Detroit, was impressed with the presentation and the real-world solution.

“This is a great start to get us moving forward into NGSS, not as theoretical bookwork, but as a tangible, real-world, usable product,” Vanoost said.

This story was recently published in the 2018 Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES)newsletter. Learn more about other EES research and activities here.

Banner image: Fifteen single use water bottles are upcycled with every eyeglass purchase from Genusee. Photo credit: iStock/Sparkle