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Glowsticks, ChapStick, Duracell batteries, eye makeup, and Crayola crayons all sound like harmless, everyday items. But upon closer examination, Grade 8 science students discovered there was a lot more to these products than meets the eye.
In a new group project this trimester—the brainchild of science teachers Shauna Leffler, Matt DuCharme, and Debra Tambor—students were asked to answer the following question: Does our community really need this product? Breaking into groups of three or four, they selected any product that interested them, and began to carefully research it. Drawing on the broad scientific concepts they learned throughout the year, including the nature of energy and matter and how they apply to the real world, students considered how well their product balanced the three "E"s of sustainability—the environment, the economy, and social equity—in order to come up with their answer.
Elodie Wardle '22 and Israel ("Izzy") Billups '22 were part of the team that investigated glowsticks. They were surprised by what they learned. "They are terrible for the environment—100 million glowsticks end up in landfills each year and the chemicals [diphenyl oxalate and dye] used to make them pollute the air and water," reports Elodie. "And, glowsticks haven't changed since 1960, so while they're economically stable now, as new inventions come about with other types of glowing objects, we felt they would slowly become less prominent." Their conclusion: glowsticks are not a necessary product.
Kristin Osika's group examined styrofoam. While they, too, were deemed unnecessary, she said the process of understanding more about the common material was enlightening. "You go to Dunkin' Donuts or get a package from Amazon and you realize that styrofoam is everywhere! But I didn't know much about it," she observes. "A lot of it ends up in landfills and chemicals in it can be harmful to humans. It was very interesting to learn more about something that's so pervasive."
In addition to the challenge of researching their individual products, teams had to learn to work together, which sometimes proved equally challenging. "I'm a very social person, and I love working in groups," says Izzy. "I chose Claire and Elodie because they are two of my closest friends but also very productive—we can get a lot done together. But I may be overly cautious—I wanted to contribute to the group's ideas but I didn't want to cut anybody off." Elodie agrees. "It can be hard to know the balance between sharing your own ideas and listening. But I felt like our group did a good job with that."
Each group had to address six different questions en route to their final, concluding answer, which wasn't an easy task, Kristin reports. (Questions included: What materials are used in the product's manufacturing? How are they obtained, and from where in the world? What is its purpose?) "We tried our best to split up the questions, but sometimes other people not assigned to a particular question had to add to the research; there was also some miscommunication. But, I've known the people in my group since the fourth grade and I feel as though I know how they work. The fact that the Pingry community is pretty small makes us all work together well."
At the end of January, presentations, which had to include a visual, were made in each of the six science classes. Students and faculty alike voted on the top two from each class, and those "finalists" then gave their presentations before the entire grade in the Wilf Family Commons.
Which group was deemed the winner? The "ChapStick group," comprised of Kaitlyn DeVito '23, Katie Miller '23, Shannen Gallagher '23, and Ally Williams '23, who made a creative video explaining why they felt chapstick was a necessary product. Manufacturer Pfizer's use of solar panels on several of its plants, the company's philanthropic work with cancer organizations, and the sheer range of the product's uses—from soothing chapped lips to sunburns to irritated skin—all factored into their positive verdict. Despite their favorable decision, however, the group warned that the small plastic tubes contribute mightily to landfills if not properly recycled.
For Grade 8 science students, among other benefits of the project, it provided a lesson in consumer awareness. "I discovered that things we can use for fun have a deeper purpose or impact than what we normally use them for," says Izzy. "I never thought about what would happen to the product after I used it."
Below, a video of the winning group's presentation, on ChapStick.
Contact: Andrea Dawson, Senior Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org