Last year, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell signed a bill allowing municipalities to offer tax exemptions on residential renewable energy upgrades. The new law wasn’t a legislator’s idea, though. It came from a high school freshman. The legislation, an amendment that will make it more affordable for Alaskans to install solar panels or erect wind turbines, was crafted by a 15-year-old student named Freya Chay.
Chay’s idea was the result of a student competition called Caring for the Kenai (CFK), which encourages young people to come up with ways to improve their local environment and better prepare their community for a natural disaster. CFK is more than a contest. It’s a cooperative effort among schools, governments, businesses and environmental groups to use young minds to solve some of the region’s most pressing environmental problems. It’s also part of the high school curriculum, and meets state and national standards for science and language arts.
For the first time this fall, the CFK model will be expanded nationwide. But teachers in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District (KPBSD) have been using it for almost two decades. In the wake of the environmentally devastating 1989 eruption of Alaska’s Redoubt Volcano -- the second-costliest volcano disaster in the United States -- Merrill Sikorski, a local public relations consultant, noticed an extreme lack of knowledge about the environment in his community. To fix that, he went straight to the source of knowledge: schools. Sikorski launched a contest asking students to answer one question, “What can I do, invent or create to better care for the environment on the Kenai Peninsula, or to help improve the area’s preparedness for a natural disaster?”
The call for ideas drew about 100 entries in its first year. Today, more than 20 years later, Sikorski says he receives about 500 submissions every year. Students, he says, come up with fresh, practical ideas that frequently leave lawmakers wondering why they didn’t think of them first. In the past decade, CFK student winners have created an environmental education curriculum for the district’s elementary schools, helped implement a tax credit for property owners who work in river bank preservation and built a wall out of used tires to reduce noise pollution from a racetrack. This summer, a student posted mile markers along the river to help first responders get to emergencies more quickly.
Once a student thinks of a solution to a local environmental problem, he or she must conduct research, run experiments, and talk to government, industry and environmental leaders. Then the student must write a final proposal. Representatives from local and state government, the school district, industry and environmental groups sift through the proposals to select finalists. Winners take home up to $1,600, and all participating schools’ science departments receive award money as well.
In addition to judging and aiding research, government officials’ most important role in Caring for the Kenai is helping students implement their ideas. Sometimes, this means finding a grant for students to finance their operation. Sometimes, it means helping them pass all of the regulations, attain all of the necessary permits and navigate the complex government agencies that would normally keep their project from becoming more than just a research paper.
Although legislators and agency workers invest some time -- and occasionally some funds -- to help students, project awards are funded by two corporate sponsors, the Chevron and Tesoro oil companies, which both operate in the region. The actual projects themselves are typically funded through government grants or additional donations from local businesses. Because of those partnerships, the CFK projects can actually save the government money. For example, when a water-sampling program for elementary schoolers was at risk of being canceled because the students were destroying the river banks as they walked along them, a CFK contestant designed an aluminum surface that would preserve the stream -- and the program. The project used donated materials and cost approximately $14,000. Had the local or state government carried out the project, according to Sikorski, it would have cost an estimated $200,000.
Within a few years of the program’s inception, a standards-based curriculum was created and offered, along with training, to any teacher in the district who wanted it. Donna Peterson, who was the district’s curriculum director at the time and later the superintendent, learned about Caring for the Kenai and instantly grabbed onto it. “You get tons of people with great ideas,” she says. CFK “was absolutely everything we could do and should do.”
The initiative is no “glorified science fair,” says Peterson. Because ideas are actually put into action, students can really observe the difference they can make. And, she adds, the program engages students more than most classroom material. “Most [students] get so cranked up about whatever their issue is, and soon they take off in ways you wouldn’t imagine.” That increased engagement seems to translate into improve test scores: While major changes in the Alaska state exams make it hard to compare recent scores with those farther in the past, KPBSD students now regularly outperform their peers across the state on language arts and science assessments.
After two decades of success in Kenai, Sikorski and Peterson have collaborated to make the program adaptable to any school district. So far, districts in California, Hawaii, New York and Washington have already expressed interest in adopting the program. The first step -- and the hardest, Sikorski says -- is lining up private sponsors to front the administrative costs and prize money. But once school districts find sponsors, Sikorski says he’s confident the program can be a success anywhere. “The [environmental] issues may be different [in other school districts], but the idea of students thinking and community cooperation in working together for environmental challenges applies anywhere there are two-legged humanoids having a footprint.”