Carlton and Wrenshall high school students have spent the last few months engaged in projects that help yield sustainable solutions in the face of today's environmental challenges as part of a program called Youth Eco Solutions.
Last week, both schools presented their projects through video call to expert judges in order to be ranked regionally and statewide. Four schools from Northeastern Minnesota participated in YES, while more than 20 participated statewide.
Carlton students with YES projects are working to eliminate plastic sporks in the cafeteria and replace them with reusable silverware. Earlier this year, they presented their proposal to the Carlton School Board, which approved their proposal.
Their YES coach, Tracy Bockbrader, a middle school science and high school chemistry teacher, is working on ordering the utensils and necessary accessories before next fall.
Replacing plastic sporks with silverware won't rid the cafeteria of all single-use products, which is why the students see their current project as the first step.
"They also have styrofoam bowls that they use for soup," sophomore Johnette Ostlund said. "And that's not cool."
Ostlund got involved with YES because she cares about treating the Earth well. She had thought she was doing her part by advocating for recycling and not littering until last summer, when she saw a video on social media of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose.
"Before I became a huge environmentalist, I really loved the ocean and all the animals in it," Ostlund said. "So seeing a little sea turtle dying because of plastic, that kind of hit me hard."
That led her to start processing the vastness of today's ecological challenges, a topic she discusses with her peers, including Haley Adkins, also a sophomore in YES.
Adkins joined YES because doing something is better than doing nothing.
"When I heard about all these things happening, a lot of them from (Ostlund), it really opened my eyes about what we should be doing and how much it matters," Adkins said.
For the past five years, Carlton has participated in YES, which is treated as an extracurricular activity. Bockbrader has helped past students start a school garden, build a recycling station for the hallway and compost lunch waste.
This year's YES team got motion light sensors installed in the restrooms. The students also plan to sell pollinator friendly seeds at events and engage the whole school in a community cleanup day.
Over at Wrenshall High School, which is in its third year of YES, students can get involved with projects in an industrial arts class with teacher Chris Gustafson, whose construction class students are building a high-mileage vehicle and a solar power-paneled boat.
The high-mileage vehicle, which is a small go-cart-sized car that fits one student, can get up to 100 mpg. It will also compete later in May at the Supermileage Challenge in Brainerd.
Also this month, the solar-powered boat will be in another competition, the Solar Boat Regatta in Eden Prairie, where last year's students placed first overall with another boat.
Gustafson decided to incorporate YES into his classroom because it brings hands-on, real-world projects into the classroom. Without support from YES, Gustafson said the solar boat project wouldn't be possible.
"I like that students are having to do some problem solving on a real-world issue," Gustafson said. "And basically, students are making a lot of mistakes. They're learning from those mistakes. These kids will tell you they've had to redo things three or four times, which I think is totally realistic."
Working on the solar-powered boat has taught junior Jake Menze the importance of solid communication when working on a team, and understanding what other people need in order to get a project done on time.
The project has also showed him the value of clean electricity in sporting activities like boat racing.
"Because when you're running on a gas motorboat, if the boat sinks, you have to worry about taking it out of the lake without leaking gas, oil and lubricants," Menze said.
Senior April Lattu has been working on the vehicle and the boat while doing much of the electrical work. She knew she wanted to get involved in the projects after attending one of the competitions last year when her sister, Hannah Lattu, was in the class.
She likes building projects that also help the community.
"I'm looking into going into the trades," April Lattu said. "I like hands-on work, and that's what this is. It's also using your brains, too."
Hannah Lattu, now a junior, plans to attend the competitions again this year. She enjoyed the problem-solving aspects of the projects.
"It's a very dirty world and I liked trying to improve that and make it better in any way we can," Hannah Lattu said. "Introducing solar power for something like a boat can help inspire many other solar power things, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed that so much."