A group of students and their biology teacher in Wyoming County have been selected as the state winner in a national competition.
The student team is addressing plastic pollution through research and social media. The project is also helping the students to engage with their community and find personal growth.
Students in the Friends of the Earth Club at Wyoming East High School won the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow competition in West Virginia. They came out on top for a project meant to make it easy for people in the region to reduce plastic usage, recycle more and stop littering.
Brittany Bauer teaches life science and as the sponsor of the club, works with students after school at least twice a week to help guide the project.
“Different students had different ideas, and we just stitched them all together as best as we could,” said Bauer, who sponsors the club. “It’s hard. We have to work with who can stay after school. And so some of the students can’t stay after school, but they can come in on Saturdays. So it’s just kind of coordinating all of their ideas and thoughts and their energies into what they want to pursue.”
Bauer and students collected uniform samples on a weekend and found that litter was contributing to microplastics in the earth. There are two types of microplastics. Primary microplastics are designed to be small, such as sequins, beads or glitter Secondary microplastics are pieces that have broken down from a larger piece of plastic
“We were finding it in areas that were heavily used by people,” Bauer said. “We found a lot of fishing line, we found a lot of films from plastic bags that were left and a lot of fishing bait, the containers for fishing bait.”
Microplastics can be toxic to humans if consumed. They leach chemicals that lead to human development disorders and cancers. Bauer teaches her students that aquatic species ingest these pieces of plastics, which can end up in the food chain.
When students found over 200 pieces of microplastics from 10 different sites buried in the local sediment, they grew concerned about the watershed and the risk of consuming them. With scientific evidence of the problem, the students set out to create awareness, using social media to help change behavior.
“We did some research and we found out that most people are afraid of what other people think about them,” Bauer said. “So social influences are an important technology right now (such as) social media. And so we decided to use that as a way to get people to change.”
Students created social media accounts and a social rewards program this year.
“We started at our school with recycling and we give awards for people that recycle the most,” Bauer said. “People who never recycled are now recycling. And so we thought wouldn’t the same thing work, maybe with reducing plastic bags. If we incentivize it and give out some sort of awards for their positive behavior and make it trendy, then other people will follow suit.”
To juggle varying schedules and resources, students were given leadership roles in different areas.
“We had a lot of plastic bags that had been thrown away because we couldn’t use them in our recycling program because they couldn’t take them,” said Amy Vest, Friend of the Earth president. “So we decided, let’s just use T-shirts, or just old bags that anyone can find and just make them into totes that we can use around the community.”
They called them together totes. They’re made out of old shirts. The club hopes people will choose the bag as an alternative to plastic bags.
“I think it’d be a lot better than using plastic bags and getting caught in the wind or getting put in the river,” Vest said. “It’s just not good for our environment and it gets into the sand and then the fish eat it and when we consume it, it can be toxic.”
“Initially, we wanted an alternative to plastic bags, because while you can recycle them, you can’t do it here; not in West Virginia,” said 11th grade club member Logan Hatfield.
Still, Hatfield is helping to encourage more people in Wyoming County to recycle.
“We’re working to expand recycling to the entirety of this county,” Hatfield said. “Right now we’re only supplying recycling to half the county.”
Hatfield first joined the club admittedly, because he knew it would look good on its college applications. The work has provided more opportunities than he expected.
“I won’t deny I started with kind of selfish goals in mind. But it became my mission,” Hatfield said. “As I’ve been a part of it, I’ve learned that it’s so much more than that. I’ve talked before the county commission. I’ve done a lot more videos than I thought I would and I’ve made sustainability projects.
While the work is meant to impact the earth, students have also developed interpersonal skills.
“I learned that it’s honestly surprising how simple some of these solutions can be,” said Hatfield. “When you use words like sustainability or step arrows, and the idea behind that is it’s little, slight things to help people change their behavior.
“But when you use terms like that, it makes all this seem so grandiose and impossible, but it’s really not. It’s honestly surprising how much can be done by just a few teenagers.”
Added Vest: “I have learned that in our community we have to learn to come together as one to figure out problems that we need to solve. Instead of just one person trying to do it on their own, we have to come together.”
As the state winner of the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow competition,
students will now compete for a space as a finalist in the national contest.