WWES 3rd grade gathering bottlecaps for benches

Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

A third-grade class at West Washington is the latest group of Washington County students looking to turn trash into benches. They’re gathering plastic caps in hopes of turning bags and bags of recylcing into a buddy bench for the school’s garden. Buddy benches are used as a place where children who don’t have someone to play with can sit as a signal that they’d like to be invited to play.

Third graders Ady Knapp, Kate Sama, Alexis Tripp and Brooks Deaton, along with their teachers Melissa Nicholson and Ashley Sullivan, came to present the project to the school board during their monthly meeting on Oct. 21.

“You should look for the numbers 2, 4 and 5 in this green triangle,” said Knapp, one of the students presenting, as she gestured up to a recycling symbol on the screen. “We sent a newsletter home with the never acceptable caps and the acceptable caps and we also did a presentation, so if you forget [what kind of caps you can turn in], you can ask one of us or another student.”

Deaton said caps can be turned in outside Nicholson’s classroom, at the elementary cafeteria, in the teacher’s lounge or at the high school office. Tripp said the caps will be sent to Green Tree Plastics in Evansville for recycling. Students will exchange their caps for a bench already made with caps brought in by other groups. The West Washington PTO is helping cover the processing costs for the bench, which, while most of the benches around the Salem area are all black and gray, come in several color options.

“We’ve learned to speak loud and we’ve also learned to stand still,” said Sama, about what the project has taught about public speaking. “We learned to stand on both sides of the [presentation screen] so kids can read it and we’ve also learned to dress nicely.”

“We’ve been learning how to stay organized and managing time,” said Knapp. “We have to get things done by a certain time, called a deadline, and we have also been learning how to send an email to the teachers for our presentations, so if you have questions and you didn’t get them answered, you can send them to Mrs. Nicholson and she’ll try to get back to you.”

Deaton said students were split into various teams that handled different aspects of the project, including a music team that wrote lyrics and created a song.

The project came about as part of Nicholson and Sullivan’s being among a group of STEM fellows, teachers working to bring science, technology, engineering and math into classrooms in more substantial ways, across various subjects and standards. Teachers are nominated to become a fellow, which is part of the Regional Opportunity Initiative, covering 11 counties.

“We have so many different areas in our community,” said Sullivan. “[ROI is] trying to get students to stay in this community to work because there are lots of opportunities for jobs, but kids don’t know, once they get to high school, what those jobs are. They’re leaving and going to Louisville and Indianapolis when places like Jasper are crazy with jobs. What ROI is trying to do is teach educators about all these types of jobs in engineering, science, technology and math and to keep students here … and they can stay in our area and be good citizens and get this area to grow.”

Nicholson added that this also encourages teachers to work with students on soft skills as well, things like collaboration, teamwork, speaking in public, problem-solving and more, giving them a better chance at success in employment after high school.

Nicholson said she is bringing project-based learning into her class, asking how to take waste and turn it into something productive and letting students come up with a solution.

“That’s the main difference between a normal project and this type of project,” she said.

Sullivan said Nicholson has had her class write persuasive essays and letters to Principal Tom Rosenbaum, learned about voting (choosing a bench with or without a back — the students giving the presentation at the meeting all voted for a bench with a back), collected around 80 pounds of caps so far, including learning to weigh and measure the caps, and how recycling plastic (or not recycling plastic) impacts the environment. They’ve also heard from speakers who work at a recycling plant.

“These kids have done a lot,” said Sullivan. “I have 12 bags sitting in my barn … They have 200 pounds total to get, so they’re not very far from their goal.”

Along with this, they have learned about preparing and giving presentations. As a way to get the word out about their project, they presented it to every grade level through a slideshow presentation.

“All the standards we’re hitting are amazing,” said Nicholson. “It’s truly amazing. I see them learning so much through it.”

So what’s going to happen when the students reach their 200-pound goal?

Another bench. Another 200 pounds of plastic that won’t make it into waterways or the ocean or be left to fill up a landfill.

“We’ve discussed that,” said Nicholson, “and they said, ‘We can’t stop collecting; we’re helping the world!”

For a list of acceptable caps, click here.


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