Sunday, April 1, 2012

Raising the proverbial bar: Upcycling ‘waste’ with technology-supported design

Good educators are experienced designers. The research shows that the teacher is the single most important variable in any classroom! Among so many other distractions, you are responsible for the learning environment in which you teach and your students learn. No need for any qualifiers there… they are always learning something; hopefully that new life experience includes something from your lesson plan.

Great educators have mastered the magic of minimizing ‘waste’ in terms of time, tools, and especially, non-essential effort. (That’s why it’s not at all surprising that we share this common interest in HippoCampus!) Engaging today’s students in yesterday’s classrooms can be a challenge indeed. In fact, it’s an uphill battle at times! But thankfully recent trends in teaching and learning are encouraging creativity in the classroom – for both teachers and students finally! Problem-based learning centered on real-world issues is one of the ways we can challenge learners to maximize their unique potential.

I was fascinated by the universal implications of upcycling as explained in Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (2002) by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Far beyond the relatively simple recycling practice we ‘boomers’ practice, the goal of upcycling is to prevent wasting potentially useful materials by making use of existing ones. Of course, recycling is still a key component of modern waste reduction; however, students may not realize that it does not provide a long-term solution.

In contrast to the third component of the "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" waste hierarchy, upcycling is a process that can be repeated in perpetuity of returning materials back to a pliable, usable form without degradation to their latent value – moving resources back up the supply chain. Upcycling requires innovative design and is likely critical to maintaining a balance between consumption and availability in our current system. Hence, the new activity Cycling Up Hill was designed as a summative assessment! Click on the following image to download a copy.

I’m certainly not suggesting that reducing and reusing and recycling are a waste! There are many excellent tools and resources on the EPA’s Learn the Issues page on Waste. For example, Individual WAste Reduction Model (iWARM) is the consumer version of the WAste Reduction Model (WARM) created by the EPA to help solid waste planners and organizations estimate the energy and greenhouse gas emissions reductions from several different waste management practices. Extending the Energy Watchers activity, it explains the energy saved by recycling small quantities of common household products, rather than landfilling them.

HippoCampus Connections: As you’d expect, the HippoCampus site also includes relevant resources you can design into your lessons in a variety of ways! A Modern Landfill shows how landfills are created and illustrates the lasting change to the natural environment. The next option for garbage disposal is detailed in Incineration, which also contributes to landfills. The External Costs video explores relates the cost of pollution clean-up to private production costs and the overall economic and environmental impacts. The Superfund animation tells the story of Love Canal – and how waste dumping resulted in long-term health problems and government action.

Instructor Notes: If you have the time and resources, I think the Cycling Up Hill activity is a perfect fit for graphic animation as an alternative project outcome! Mashable offers a good summary of Free Animated GIF Creators You Can Use Online. I’m always looking for innovative ways to integrate new teaching techniques into the online learning environment, which adds the title of ‘instructional designer’ to my ever-growing list. If this aspect interests you too, you might want to check out Design for How People Learn by Julie Dirksen. In addition to practical information that can be applied immediately, she models a visually-rich presentation style that fits my classroom.

Sometimes seemingly off-task topics demand/deserve your attention. Leveraging those rare ‘teachable moments’ is never a waste of time. Knowing we made a unique contribution makes all the difference. Somehow, how we chose to orchestrate the physical, intellectual and emotional aspects of the learning environment makes having to deal with the tedious tasks of academic politics is worthwhile – and on occasion, priceless. Thank you for the great work you do in putting together great lessons for our future problem-solvers!