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DIY Environmental Classroom Activities

Courtni Wisenbaker-Scheel

With global temperatures on the rise and our Earth’s natural resources in decline, it’s now more important than ever to teach our children about the importance of the environment and humans’ impact on it. Take your eco-centered education beyond recycled artwork with these four easy DIY classroom activities.

Composting Classroom Activiites

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, food waste makes up 20 percent of everything that ends up in landfills. Many of us think that since food is biodegradable, this shouldn’t cause an environmental problem, but that thinking couldn’t be more wrong. If food waste isn’t exposed to oxygen and other essential elements, it can’t properly decompose -- and this causes toxic methane gases to be released into the air. Composting is a great way to both help eradicate these harmful gases and lighten our landfill load -- all while making nutrient-rich gardening soil in the process.

Composting is one of the most adaptable science experiments, since it can fit in any classroom in any climate. If your school is willing, your class can build a three-section gated turning system or install enclosed bins and worm boxes somewhere on the property. However, if you need to keep your composting inside, a simple two-can bioreactor or a soda bottle bioreactor will yield the same result. Here’s a simple-to-follow outline for how to create each of these composting systems, as well as an in-depth analysis of the chemical processes that occur during decomposition.

Plants and Pollution

Understanding how ecosystems work is an essential part of an environmental education, and unfortunately, talking about soil pollution is a key element in that conversation now. Help your students understand how oil spills and acidic soil pH can negatively impact the health of crops and plants alike with this experiment. All you need is a package of radish or sunflower seeds, six planting pots, soil, motor oil, white vinegar, and water. Simply fill each pot with equal amounts of soil and seeds, and allow them to germinate. Each pot should yield the same number of sprouts, but if that is not the case, weed out the extras as necessary. Label two pots control, two pots oil, and two pots acid. Add one tablespoon of motor oil to each of the oil-labeled plants, and one tablespoon of vinegar to each of the acid-labeled plants. Then place all the plants in sunlight and water regularly for the next two weeks. At the end of the growing period, measure the growth and overall look of each plant in order to conclude the impact each contaminant had on the plants.

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Window Garden

A recent study found that one in five elementary school children doesn’t know where fresh food comes from. As with all of us, it’s important to know how an issue will affect our daily lives in order for it to make a long-term impact, and this project will do just that. Once your compost is ready, use it to start a vertical garden in your classroom by cutting out the top side of soda bottles and stringing them roughly one foot apart with twine or rope. Next, fill each bottle with soil, adding two to three seeds in each. Lettuces, herbs, and spinach work best for this type of garden, though some bean vines would be fine -- so long as they have room to spread upward. Carrots are also easy to grow in a window garden, but you will need to cut off the top of the bottle and string it vertically. Make watering easy for even the smallest hands by turning an old milk jug into a handy watering can by puncturing the lid with a small nail. Once your plants have been able to grow, let your students enjoy a yummy snack that they had a hand in producing.

Education Bonus: This easy DIY project lets you combine food sustainability and recycling in one!

Oil Spill Cleanup

From the shoes on our feet to the gasoline we put in our cars, oil is a part of almost every aspect of our lives. Every day, millions of barrels of oil are harvested from the Earth and transported to every corner of the globe. Oil spills have become frequent as demand for it has increased, causing disastrous impacts on our ecosystems. In this experiment, your students will learn what sorbents work best in attempting to clean up these spills. You will need to gather a 6-cup size measuring cup, vegetable oil, water, a mesh coffee filter, and four or more sorbents such as coconut husks, polypropylene pads, cotton balls, bird feathers, or pet fur (easy to collect from a local groomer if you can’t peel some from your pet’s brush). Cut the sorbents into thumb-sized pieces and place roughly one cup into the metal coffee filter. Add 3 cups of water and one cup of oil to your measuring cup. Slowly lower the stuffed coffee filter into your water-oil mixture and allow it to sit for 30 seconds. Once time has elapsed, lift it and let it drain for another 30 seconds before recording the new water-oil level. Repeat this process with each of your sorbents -- being sure to thoroughly clean the coffee filter between each test -- to see which material absorbs the most oil.

Those environmental leaders of tomorrow are sitting in your classroom today. Help spark their passion with these fun and educational DIY projects!

About the Writer

Courtni Wisenbaker-Scheel is a mother of two, and lover of all things Danish modern. She enjoys writing professionally for Modernize, with the goal of empowering homeowners with the expert guidance and educational tools they need to take on big home projects with confidence.