Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Scrap Metal: Lessons in Sustainability

By Stephanie Bartlett
It began with the spark of one student.

Departing from the typical get-to-know you activity at the beginning of last year, I invited students to bring five photos that defined who they were.  I asked parents to think deeply about the fabric of their family. What were the passions and curiosities of their five year old child? What made their child laugh? What are the stories that helped shape who their child is today?

For the first few weeks of school,  Blaze was quiet and reserved.  I wondered how I could connect with him and find out what made him tick. It turns out that the wheels were already in motion with our photo project. When it was Blaze's turn to present his favourite picture, he chose a picture of a machine with a giant claw. His voice became as deep and matter of fact as a man's, and as mesmerizing as a storyteller's as he proceeded to inform the class that this was his own scrap metal yard and that he had two of these machines. He explained that the machines smashed and sorted metal, which was then put in a container and sent to China where it would be reused. Blaze went on to say that he often went to work after school, and that he had his own office with a computer.  And there was the hook! This five year old child was already so engaged in a real world context that a classroom full of toys and large group lessons had precious little value to him at that moment.  After asking Blaze's parents if we could visit the scrap yard later in the year, I started to think about how we could use Recon Metal as a real, authentic example within our local community to learn about sustainability and the life cycle of an object. I started to ask myself what really matters in the context of teaching the curriculum and discovered for myself that learning is much more engaging when it is based on the real life and when it directly addresses the passions of our students.

Fast forward to April, a few weeks before Earth Day.  We set the date for our field trip and began to spend time exploring the field of environmental sustainability. We began the month by learning about recycling of different materials through videos, literature and discussions. The students explored and played with wire, and different found objects. Students created art projects, storyboards for movies, and books, all of which showed the process or importance of reusing and recycling.

On the day we visited the scrap metal yard, the students disembarked from the bus, donned t-shirts and hard hats and began the tour. We watched a machine load a shipping container bound for China and  watched a car get smashed by a giant magnet. We ran our hands through shredded copper and aluminum, and sorted different metals. All in all, it was an unforgettable day.

But the best part? The next day, when we reflected together, the students really understood the message. Their comments demonstrated a basic understanding of the life cycle of an object. An object can be used, recycled, shipped somewhere else and created into something new, like a new toy car, for example. And that is the bottom line when we are teaching a new generation to care for our planet and our future.
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