SCAPA at Bluegrass aims for another game-winner in Eco Challenge
The Bagstreet Boys’ Round 2 project is due by March 13, and the winners will be announced in early
April. This team includes Violet Ferguson, Shayda Alsalihi, Sofia Wu, Nora Mack, Jamie Cook,
Marianne Gebb, and Jayden Young (not pictured).
Science teacher finds effective combination for annual success
As Lexington prepares for the Sweet Sixteen basketball tournaments, another type of March Madness is brewing for SCAPA at Bluegrass. A team of eighth-graders called The Bagstreet Boys is fine-tuning their project in Round 2 of the Lexus Eco Challenge, a national STEM contest that encourages students to develop environmental programs that benefit their communities. Even more notable is that SCAPA has had 13 first-round winners, four final-round honorees, and an overall contest champion – accumulating more than $200,000 in prize money for team members, their adviser, and their school.
The common denominator through this impressive run is science teacher Ashlie Arkwright, who assembles and guides the teams. “Every year, it feels like the first time. The competition does get stiffer, and more teams are participating,” she said. “I never expect that we have a lock on anything, so every year it’s so exciting and such a shock (when we advance).”
Arkwright was fairly new to the classroom when she got a random email about the launch of Eco Challenge all those years ago. It prompted her to create an environmental unit as she sought a meaningful and fun way to assess students’ learning. “This is exactly what I was looking for,” she recalled. Arkwright says Eco Challenge now can be pivotal in motivating students for science, calling it a turning point for many. “I’m committed to every child having this opportunity, so that’s why I build it into my curriculum,” she said.
One thing that’s different about Eco Challenge is that the group projects incorporate the whole school and the larger community. That engagement helps with year-to-year buy-in, and anticipation builds as students approach eighth grade knowing their turn is coming. “It’s one of the signature things our kids at SCAPA do,” Arkwright said. “It’s naturally motivating, and the kids get to see the direct benefit of all their hard work.” Those tangible results include extra equipment for the science lab such as devices to measure pH and electrical current. Arkwright has also donated some of her portion back to SCAPA -- buying a set of Chromebooks, a scanner, a 3-D printer, and other supplies that benefit the whole school.
Sisters Nolan and Aedon Gunn, now juniors at adjacent Lafayette High School, recall the impact of their experience with the Mighty Meat Minimizers, whose members bonded over several months of in-school and after-hours effort. “SCAPA being such a small school, we’re close with everyone and it’s easy to work together,” Aedon said. Nolan also appreciated the practice with public speaking as the team promoted their project among other classes and then out around Lexington. “We’re really a lot more prepared (for high school) because of it,” she said.
Members of this year’s Bagstreet Boys agreed the intense contest is time well-spent. “You stay with these people long-term and it’s hard work, but it’s all supportive and good energy,” said eighth-grader Violet Ferguson. Teammate Sofia Wu noted that while Round 1 is for a class grade, Round 2 really takes extra commitment. “We’re in a national competition so we need to think bigger,” she said. For instance, The Bagstreet Boys have been busy adding Instagram followers and reaching out to local businesses to spread their message about the harmful effects of plastic bags in landfills. “There’s going to be hiccups and misunderstandings, but it’s great preparation for working in the real world,” Sofia added.
Arkwright typically enters eight projects in the annual Eco Challenge, with seven students per group, and she melds the teams based on complementing strengths. “In order to have the best project, you need people good with technology, good at collecting and analyzing data, good speakers. Who’s going to fill in your gaps?” she explained. From there, the process is student-driven. “The kids always come up with things that I wouldn’t even think of. They’re risk-takers and want to throw out new ideas and see where it takes them,” Arkwright said.
SCAPA encourages other schools to try the Eco Challenge. “It really is such a wonderful experience for the kids,” Arkwright said. “The competition aspect is so open-ended that there really isn’t one right way to go about it, and they have tons of good resources online and ideas to get you started. If you let the kids take charge, they’ll pleasantly surprise you. I think the secret is really truly not trying to limit the kids and make so many decisions for them. Allow them to be creative, allow them to go forward with their ideas and not try to limit or pigeonhole them, and the rest will follow.”
Ashlie Arkwright, science teacher, (859) 381-3332