Stepping into Tim Varga’s middle school biogeochemistry class feels like entering into a graduate-level course. Students pull out their laptops and begin to work, needing no instruction from the teacher. They get up and move around the room, asking questions of one another, before one student says he is ready to present his part of the data to the rest of the class. He steps up, projects his spreadsheet on the wall, and walks his classmates through his work and how he came to the numbers he’s presenting. Other students in the class ask questions, seeking understanding how his data impacts their part of the project. One student notices a slight error in the calculations and thoughtfully goes to the front of the room, picks up a whiteboard marker, and visually depicts his thinking. The rest of the class agrees and looks at their own spreadsheets to confirm the data is correct. The entire class is eager to draw conclusions about the information they have spent months collecting.
For months, these middle school students have been working to quantify the carbon cycle for the Hillsborough campus, with different students responsible for different parts of the project to help create the whole picture. The project has involved dissecting gas and electric bills, estimating transportation emissions based on where students and faculty live, and conducting a forest carbon plot analysis.
“We are trying to determine where the major sources of carbon are on campus,” Tim said. “The hope is to be able to share how we as a community can lower our carbon impact.”
The hands-on nature of this project and its real-world applications lend themselves perfectly to middle school students.
“We were able to really get into our work in a hands-on way, measuring trees, counting cars coming to campus,” said eighth grader Nate B. “I felt close to the data I was using.”
To begin understanding the carbon impact of the campus, students received 18 gas bills and 12 electric bills and dissected the school’s usage down to the per-person impact.
“We don’t have a lot of control over adjusting electricity, though we have some,” Tim explained. “It’s with transportation that we have a very direct way to effect impact.”
This wasn't a repeat of an old project. We were doing something completely brand new.”
Nate B., eighth grade
Next, students pulled the directory of students and faculty based at the Hillsborough campus and individually mapped each address to calculate the distance to campus for each member of the community. They received data from the business office about who takes the bus or other form of shared transportation.
In a recent class, Nate presented information he gleaned from the transportation calculations done by seventh graders Clara B. and Miriam H., sharing his exploration of the assumptions he drew from the data. He shared what he viewed the emissions impact is of those who drive to campus (and taking into account the drive home after drop-off and the drive to campus before pick-up). He explained a number of factors, including driving to after-school activities and not directly home, that make the data he and his classmates are looking at an estimate rather than a precise measurement.
“I’ve learned that there is no end to this type of science,” Nate said. “There are layers upon layers upon layers. For example, we could continue by looking at the amount of carbon it took to build the cars people are driving. You can look infinitely deep, so we had to set up really strict procedures and guidelines to know what we were measuring.”
Tim—whose background includes being a forester and research ecologist and who considers himself a “data visualization, design, and interdisciplinary earth systems scientist building a more sustainable future”—was particularly excited about students conducting the forest carbon plot analysis. In this analysis, students went around the campus, and “set up 30 meter diameter plots where we measured the trees using DBH tape, which is the official forester metric,” Tim said. “The students measured the diameter of 160 trees on our campus and used allometry and allometric equations to compute the biomass in each tree.”
Students were drawn to this part of the project, and Nate shared the sentiment.
“It was really cool to know that no one else had ever measured these trees before,” he said. “This wasn't a repeat of an old project. We were doing something completely brand new.”
There are hopes of sharing this data, in visual form, with the community to show community members how they can lower their carbon impact.
“I really enjoyed getting to work with a lot of data because I think data collection is interesting and the numbers we got were shocking,” said seventh grader Miriam H. “I think it also makes it really clear how Nueva can support our planet.”