The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 6, 2013

(With video) YES! Mankato West High School club making their ideas reality

By Robb Murray
The Free Press

---- — Months ago, when my daughter told me about the latest student organization she was joining, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of this new club with the funny name.

“I signed up for Yes! club, Dad,” she said. Or something along those lines. She explained it was a science thing, and I figured she knew what she was doing. She wouldn’t join something unless it was worth her time.

Now the end of the year has come. And as I look back at the work my daughter has done with this Yes! club thing, I have to say I’m amazed.

Yes! — which stands for Youth Energy Summit — is sort of a parallel organization to Mankato West High School’s Science Club. Same kids, same vibe, similar mission. But this one’s a little different.

My daughter joins a lot of clubs and is a fairly involved high schooler. She thoroughly enjoys most of them. But even she admits that sometimes the work of a student group can be rather insular. A lot of times the things done in a club don’t go much beyond the club.

This year, in the Yes! club, it was different.

“Yes! club was amazing,” she said. “We actually did something.”

Indeed.

This year the Yes! Club had a pair of projects. One was the installation of a meter to measure the school’s energy use. A fine project, and one that will come into play in a big way in the future.

But the one that captured everyone’s attention in a big way — if not always in a positive way — was the lunch tray project.

The Yes! club kids, with the ever vigilant and watchful eye of teacher Eric Koser, dug deep into the details on this one to figure out if it would be a good idea — both economically and environmentally — if the school swapped out using plastic foam trays for lunch in favor of reusable, permanent trays.

“We’ve raised our students to know we eat on Styrofoam trays and then throw it away,” Koser said.

A little background might be helpful here.

The district used to use permanent trays. But they made the switch to disposable to save money on the costs associated with workplace injuries stemming from the repetitive motion of washing the trays. That switch was made back in the early 2000s.

Early this year, the Yes! club decided to delve into whether it would be a good idea to switch back.

They looked at every possible cost, including the purchase cost of trays, the cost to heat the water, etc. They also tabulated how many trays are used at West. Each day they use 750 trays, which adds up to about 129,000 annually. Since the district implemented the plastic foam tray plan 12 years ago, roughly 1.5 million trays have been eaten on and tossed.

To illustrate this waste, the club produced a quick video in which Koser and a pair of Yes! club members (Mary Traxler and my daughter, looking all science-y in their lab coats) stack the trays up against the side of the school. Two days of trays — trays dripping with slime and goo — reached about 30 feet high. A rather stunning depiction of the tray waste produced by just one school in the district during just two days. Throw in East and Dakota Meadows and the 11 elementary schools, and the size of that two-day pile might rival the height of MSU’s Gage Towers.

Their research found that not only would permanent trays be better for the environment, but it would actually save the district between $50 and $75 monthly.

Ultimately, the Yes! club got the district administration involved. And to its credit, the administrators recognized a good idea when it saw one and agreed to shift back to permanent trays.

“It felt really good to say, ‘Wow, we can make a meaningful change!’” Koser said.

Yes! club members were ecstatic.

And then ... the reviews from their fellow students came in. A lot of kids liked the idea. And a lot of kids did not.

Some defaced the new trays, including one unfortunate act of vandalism that involved a swastika. Mostly, though, students who disapproved voiced disgust. Why? Because they disliked the notion of eating off a tray that someone else has eaten off of.

Seriously.

The students countered, of course, with the facts that if the people who were voicing disgust had ever eaten at a restaurant — or ever eaten at home — they’re most likely eating off of plates that have been used by someone else and then washed. Just like the trays.

Koser said he was somewhat surprised by the pushback. But he said that, for the kids in the Yes! club, dealing with that is just another part of science. There are plenty of examples out there where science points to a better way of doing things, and some people refuse to see it, or refuse to believe in the science. Look at the debate over climate change.

The foam/permanent tray debate is a little less volatile than climate change, but the basic ignorance versus knowledge dynamic appears to be at play the same way.

The last nine months for my daughter were about the busiest of her life. I’m surprised I saw her at all this year. But when I did, it was always nice to hear about the work they were doing in Yes! club. And now I know that, when she said “We actually did something,” she wasn’t kidding.

Next year, Koser predicts membership in — and impact of — Yes! club will continue to grow. The energy measurement part of what they did this year (which was actually begun the year before) will be the basis of one of their projects. They’re also considering looking into solar energy for the school, and composting, as well as going on field trips to other schools that are finding innovative ways to save or conserve energy.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering how much money has been spent on these kids and their energy-saving endeavors, think again. Everything they did was paid for with grant money, which Koser also used as a teaching moment. Writing grants is a key part of science these days, and they were able to get grants from the Southwest Initiative Foundation, Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, the organizations that sponsor the Yes! program.

(To see a video of the tray project, visit mankatofreepress.com.)

Robb Murray is a Free Press staff writer. He can be reached at 344-6386 or rmurray@mankatofreepresscom.