In the spring of 2007, Newton North High School English teacher Stephen Chinosi had just led a group of students through the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) when he invited them to embark on a new project. After some passionate discussion, Chinosi recalls, they decided to explore the history of diesel engines and biodiesel fuel.
“These kids put together reports and PowerPoint presentations on all aspects of biodiesel, and I looked at the work—by kids who were at risk of failing the MCAS—and saw them engaged in ways I’d never seen kids engage,” recalls Chinosi, who then presented the work to Principal Jennifer Price. “I said, ‘I want to do something with this—to bring together these disconnected forces like environmentalism, activism, economics, science and engineering—in a truly integrated way.’”
Greengineering Events and Innovations
The students are now producing and sharingthousands of gallons of biodiesel fuel made from cooking grease. This spring, they hosted an Envirojam concert that raised money for Newton’s Green Decade Coalitionand provided a platform for several local green businesses. They’re also producing snowboard covers, boutique bags and grill covers from reengineered shopping bags.
During the year, Chinosi and his colleagues encouraged students as they discovered and refined the art of fusing plastic shopping bags using household irons. The result is a sturdier plastic, used to make wallets that were created by and for students.
“They went around for two weeks and did all this market analysis, talking to other kids and asking, ‘What would you want in a wallet?’” Chinosi advises. “Whether they knew it was market analysis or not is irrelevant—they designed a great wallet, and every single one sold.”
On a recent visit to the Greengineers shop, visitors saw a completed order of 100 boutique bags made from that same fused plastic. The bags, which were designed and sewn by students, would hold books for needy children whose families received assistance from the nonprofit Newton Partnership.
Partnering to Make a Difference
Legal Sea Foods, Save that Stuff and Whole Foods Markets are among the other partners working with the Greengineers to reduce and reuse waste. Massachusetts Institute of Technology is involved with the program’s alternative energy projects, the latest of which involves extracting oil from algae for fuel. “The first half of the year, the kids work out the recipe for biodiesel and do all the research and engineering to solve problems,” Chinosi says, noting that the Greengineers encountered challenges growing the algae and consulted with MIT researchers to find a solution.
Chinosi reports that his Greengineers are girls, boys, honors students and students with academic challenges. They sign up for Greengineering as a science elective for reasons like wanting to make a difference, build machines and design things that have real-world impact. Athletes also get in on the act, says Chinosi. “Last year, the mother of this big football player came to me and said, ‘You know what my son asked for this Christmas? A sewing machine! What should I do?’ And I said, ‘Perfect—get him a sewing machine!’”
Enhancing Self-Awareness and Activism
Products like boutique bags and biodiesel may impress visitors to the program, Chinosi notes, but it’s the unseen that makes Greengineering truly innovative. “It’s a classroom where kids can think and bring all the stuff of who they are and what they want to become,” he says. “And they can test things out and learn from failures. Failure is encouraged, actually.”
Andrew Mackowski, a junior at Newton North High, says Greengineering raised his awareness of how much waste is generated in his community, prompting him to start spreading the word about things like composting and recycling. “It’s a great experience,” says Mackowski. “We’re working with a bunch of companies and groups and schools in the community and really expanding the idea of reusing, so it’s getting out into the greater area.”
Junior Quinn Silva says Greengineering helps her learn under realistic conditions that sharpen her problem-solving skills and enhance her resourcefulness. Silva, who plans to study oceanography and environmental sciences in college, already speaks like an activist at work. “We’re all living on this planet, and if we want to continue doing that, we need to kick it into gear and start thinking about the causes and effects of industry,” she says. “We have the technology to make environmentally friendly machines and factories, so why aren’t we doing that?”
That may be the perfect question for the next class of Greengineers to consider when the school year begins in September.