Green is the word for JoAnne Brown's students at Olympus Junior High as they participate in the Lexus Eco Challenge. Their accomplishments include recycling nearly 800 water bottles and getting rid of 786 pounds of trash.
"I see them truly empowered to make a difference," Brown said. "It's a neat experience for me and especially for them to take learning into their own hands."
Brown, a science teacher, began the project with her classes in 2007. The Lexus Eco Challenge is a nationwide competition for secondary-school students to implement and execute plans that will better the environment.
The competition consists of two initial challenges, where up to 16 teams can win $10,000 in grants and scholarships. Winning teams advance to a final stage to vie for one of two $30,000 grand prizes.
"In 2007, my classes decided to build an outdoor classroom," Brown said. "It was expensive, so I was looking for grants to help pay for it."
Brown thought the Lexus Eco Challenge would be a great way to get grant money and educate her students about environmental issues. It seemed perfect also because the project they wanted funding for the outdoor classroom consisted of a garden that features native plants and uses minimal watering.
The first year her students participated was a success. Three teams placed first, and the school earned $30,000 for its outdoor garden among other cash prizes. To date, excluding this year, students have won $230,000. More than 500 students participated.
"As a whole, the quality of projects that I've seen this year is better than I've ever seen," Brown said. "The enthusiasm is incredible from the students."
This year, two of her seventh-grade teams won in the land/water competition, each earning $10,000. They will compete for the $30,000 prize in February. The air/climate judging is ongoing.
Brown said she's also impressed with the perseverance shown by her students, who had to work hard to reach out to different parts of the community.
"It can be frustrating because they work in big groups, and sometimes they have to call 15 people and still don't get an answer, but they come out of it with just this look on their faces," she said.
This year, 33 groups of Brown's students completed projects to submit to the Lexus Eco Challenge. One team collected more than 1,700 VHS tapes to recycle. Other projects included cleaning parks and planting trees. "Two groups convinced the Granite School District to start a districtwide recycling program," Brown said.
Brown had been trying to get the district to do so for 10 years, so she told the students to try another project. To her amazement, the district was on board and even asked her students to be a part of the planning.
"We're thrilled to be one of the first schools in the district to do it," she said.
Ninth-grader Ryan Hilton's team worked on spreading awareness about water conservation. He and his friends created a blog and a Facebook page to further the cause.
"It was pretty successful; we got 1,500 views on Facebook," he said. "I felt like I was making a difference."
Classmate Olivia Hoj participated in a group that collected old cellphones, which, if not recycled, can contribute to pollution because they contain toxins like lead, mercury and beryllium.
"Old cellphones have many precious metals in them," she said. "If we don't recycle them, we don't get [the metals] back."
Hoj's team donated to a company called Hope Phones, which uses the monetary value of the recycled phones to supply health-care technology worldwide.
"It's a big deal to us," Hoj said. "We made an impact on our community, which is important to us."
Brown's students actively participated in the Lexus Eco Challenge since 2007, but everything halted when Brown was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2010. She underwent chemotherapy and returned to teaching last year. She let her students do the challenge for extra credit in 2011, but everything returned to full swing this year.
"This is absolutely special," Brown said. "My school was so supportive through the cancer stuff."
Even more remarkable is the fact that these ninth-graders she teaches now were the seventh-graders she had when she was diagnosed with cancer. Brown said it's a unique experience for them and her to go through together.
"It's so nice to have this be the focus instead of thinking about cancer all the time," she said. "It seemed like [cancer] was what everyone thought of instead of 'She's the crazy one who does all those environmental projects.'"
Environmental issues affected Brown early on. She lived in the northwest United States, where logging was a popular industry. "All the beautiful forest got cut down all the time," she said. "I never felt like I could make much of an impact."
Now that her students are achieving goals that might go a long way to better the planet, Brown said she is highly satisfied.
"I think of all the small things we can do," she said. "They add up to big things."
Although the cash rewards are beneficial, Brown said she hopes her students will gain knowledge and inspiration.
"The impact is exponential. They'll be in college and in their careers and they'll remember what it feels like to go out and do these things."
By the numbers
4,700 • Cumulative volunteer hours
786 • Pounds of trash collected
772 • Plastic water bottles recycled
111 • Cellphones donated to Hope Phones
5 • Parks cleaned
2 • Trails tidied
1 • Lake picked up