Assessing Human Impact in the Cafeteria

Hundreds of mouths stood agape as six students in white “haz-mat” suits picked through a mountainous pile of trays, plastic wrappers, tater tots and pizza sticks. Shrieks and “ewwwwwww”s carried through the gymnasium. Students and teachers collectively held their noses. Meanwhile, piles labeled “Trash, Food Waste, and Recycling” grew steadily taller.


While most children are told at an early age that one should recycle and not let things food go to waste, the reality in cafeterias across the nation (Burlington included) is quite different. A trash audit is visceral. It speaks to the students sense of sight AND smell. With the Next Generation Science Standards explicit attention to human impacts on earth systems, Wendy and I at the Burlington Science Center wanted to bring this disciplinary core idea to light in a way our students would connect with. Inspired by the NSTA 2010 article, “Trash Pie: Is Your School Serving?” We picked up some small size sanitation suits and booties at the local hardware store before putting together a multimedia presentation that would orient students to our essential question: How do our choices affect our community? How do our choices affect our world?

Our Science Center ‘show’ would not be like the norm. No large scale props (with the exception of a tarp) or “science magic.” Instead, Wendy and I collected a Monday’s worth of trash at each elementary school and stored it away to be opened and revealed a day later in the gymnasium with the entire student body and faculty present. After the initial shock of over 100 pounds of waste before them, we introduced the “Our Trash, Our Choices” challenge: a week’s worth of trash sorting, data collection, and data analysis to reveal the patterns in our waste and the choices we make, aimed to inform and change behaviors in a way that will lessen our demands on natural resources and the steady growth of our world’s landfills.

Results were immediate. At all four elementary schools waste (combined totals of trash and food) dropped between 30 and 50% on the very first day. Much of the reductions came in how students managed their food waste, choosing to bring uneaten snacks home, or polish off bottles of water and cartons of milk instead of simply throwing them (and their recyclable containers) into the trash. Days afterward waste reductions had leveled off (and on breakfast for lunch day even increased) but did not reach original levels. At three of the four schools, custodians took to heart the pleas by children (and some teachers) to make recyclable containers more prominent and accessible during the lunch, dramatically reducing the rampant disposal of plastic water bottles.

During the week teachers took opportunities to read children’s books exploring the importance of protecting earth’s resources and recycling those already put to work in our various products. Kindergarteners at Francis Wyman read about turning old materials into toys and mobiles while fourth graders read of a child’s dream world where his future is overrun with trash and insufferable pollution. Other teachers used the resources shared on the Science Center blog to further the conversation in the classroom and send the learning home.

To see the Burlington Cable Access channel’s news brief on our program click here. To see the silent video we shared with students while they took their seats in the gymnasium click here.

About Sean Musselman

Teacher Dad and Burlington MA Schools K-5 Science and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator. NSTA Professional Development facilitator and author of "Think Like a Scientist: Investigating Weather and Climate" NSTA Kids ebook.
This entry was posted in 3-5, K-2, NGSS and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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