MAY 2008 | VOL. 8 NO. 9  
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  A Partnership for Change

Loyola University Chicago has a number of long-standing partnerships with K-12 schools in the Chicagoland area. One program provides continuing education for Chicago Public Schools high school science and math teachers in an effort to increase students’ standardized testing scores. Another project focuses on developing innovative programs that bring health care into the classrooms of underrepresented schools on Chicago’s west side.

An exciting new partnership, initiated by the Center for Urban Environmental Research and Policy (CUERP), emphasizes environmental sustainability and renewable biodiesel fuel production through double-level service learning. Loyola faculty members mentor Loyola students, who in turn mentor and train area high school students.

Loyola’s biodiesel education project is part of a new interdisciplinary and experiential learning course called Solutions To Environmental Problems (STEP). In STEP, our students work, guided by Loyola faculty and staff from a wide variety of disciplines, to ameliorate environmental problems on campus and in the surrounding community. During the first two semesters of STEP, fall 2007 and spring 2008, students learned about environmental, political, social, and cultural issues related to fossil fuel use and the potential for biofuels to assuage these problems. In the lab section, students learned the chemistry involved in making biodiesel, constructed a biodiesel lab on campus, and made weekly batches of fuel by recycling waste vegetable oil from the University cafeterias.

Two of the most successful student and faculty projects in the STEP course are the partnerships formed with Highland Park High School (HPHS) and the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School (YWLCS). Through both of these K-12 partnerships, students and faculty have provided teachers at both high schools with biodiesel curricula and content support, helped the school communities construct their own biodiesel labs, and facilitated the production of cleaner-burning and renewable biodiesel for use in their school buses and grounds vehicles.

“When the high school first entered into this project, I had no idea how powerful the learning would be for our students,” said Tom Koulentes, vice principal of HPHS and lead teacher for the HPHS biodiesel partnership. “It is not an overstatement to say that this project, and the experience of producing alternative energy, has completely inspired our students and has transformed many of their lives and visions for their futures.”

Kathleen Grimes, lead teacher from YWLCS, says, “The challenge that most teachers face is finding the time, expertise, and other resources required to engage their students in such an in-depth investigation, which is where the biodiesel team from Loyola comes in. As a teacher, I know that there is a great need for programs such as this one in our schools.”

The STEP outreach program has demonstrated that biodiesel education is a powerful tool for teaching critical thinking and environmental problem solving skills, fostering social awareness of climate change in educational institutions and their related communities, and promoting civic engagement by empowering students, faculty, and staff to take action. Loyola students developed a strong understanding of the science, advantages, and limitations of biofuels through the interactive and interdisciplinary STEP course, and they were able to relay that knowledge to high school teachers and students. By actually producing biodiesel fuel, students at both the college and high school levels gained an acute awareness of their ability to make a tangible positive difference in society.

“Perhaps the most important result from our partnership with Loyola’s biodiesel team is that our high school students have had a passion for environmental conservation ignited in them. While we [HPHS] have had a long-standing environmental club that engages students in sustainable living and conservation, our work with the biodiesel lab demonstrated to students that they could take real, meaningful action to make a measurable difference in their community and ultimately, their world,” says Koulentes.

Working with local high schools on the STEP program has illustrated the importance of sharing Loyola’s energy, knowledge, and resources with the surrounding community. As a result of our apparent successes, we hope to expand our biodiesel outreach program. Loyola’s biodiesel lab and related projects have been funded through the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) People, Prosperity, and the Planet program, and we have submitted a proposal to the EPA to fund a second, more extensive, phase of the project that will allow us to implement a transformative alternative energy high school outreach program. If funded, we will use mobile biodiesel laboratories to educate thousands of Chicago-area high school students about biodiesel production and the socio-environmental context that motivates its use.

In the end, we hope area high school students will learn, as our own students have, about global energy and environmental challenges and the role alternative energy sources play in confronting these challenges. We hope that this comprehensive educational outreach effort will transform entire school communities by motivating students, teachers, and community members to make more environmentally conscious personal decisions, thus empowering them to become leaders in their communities.

Nancy C. Tuchman PhD, Associate Provost for Research/Interim Director of CUERP; Alison Varty, MS, Instructor, CUERP; Shane Lishawa, MS, Instructor, CUERP (All authors are from Loyola University Chicago)