Research Question for International Travel

How do the resources available to communities affect their efforts to protect their environment?

Creating and clearly articulating a research question was one of the most challenging aspects of my entire TGC experience.  I had never been to the Philippines before, never been involved in a professional development program quite like this one, and was overwhelmed by how much I had learned continued learning about global education.  I had so many questions, and there were so many possible areas of inquiry that it was very difficult for me to narrow my focus.  My host in at Leganes National High School, Zoilo Pinongcos, deserves the credit for helping me decide on a research question.  One of my many areas of interest is protecting the environment.  I am the recycling coordinator at our school, and often participate in programs such as Adopt a Highway, and River Sweep, where community volunteers go out and collect litter along highways and the banks of rivers and lakes. Through our introductory conversations, he became aware of my interests and asked me to talk to his students about recycling.  That assignment drove my research and took it in directions that I did not initially expect.

My job as recycling coordinator at school is pretty simple.  Our school district and the city have a partnership to encourage school-wide recycling.  Recycling containers are provided for us, the materials are collected and sold to a recycling facility nearby, a portion of the proceeds goes back to the schools, and the school with the highest percentage of recycling to waste receives a bonus.  I educate teachers and students about what materials can be collected, encourage them to be conscientious about what they throw away, and collect paper recycling from classrooms every two weeks.  When my host asked me to teach a lesson about recycling, the first thing I had to do was find out if they even have a collection facility in his community and if the program that we have in our school would be realistic for his school.  In a nutshell, the answer is NO.  I did research online, and asked my host and another friend who happens to live in the city and could find nothing about local recycling cities.  They certainly have nothing like the weekly collection offered to homes and schools where I live, or even recycling centers where you can drop off your materials. After my field experience, I spent 2 weeks backpacking around the Philippines, so I had many opportunities to talk to local people about education and the environment.  I saw people saving plastic bottles in the most remote locations I visited, but all I was able to find out is that there are people who do come around and collect plastic bottles which they later sell, but I never got a clear answer on who these people are, or what happens to the bottles.

One thing I learned was that my personal concept of recycling is too narrow.  In my school we talk about Reduce, Recycle, Reuse.  In my mind, recycling means that you drop off your recyclable materials somewhere, or leave them out to be collected.  Then some industry uses those materials to manufacture something new.  In the Philippines, people who recycle simply create their own new products, or reuse them in useful ways.  I saw several examples of plastic bottles or old tires used as decorative planters, but I was really impressed by the functional uses of many items.  At a beach, the sand bar was marked off for safety.  Buoys were made of liter soda bottles covered with plastic shopping bags and tied together by rope.  I saw old tires used as speed bumps.  Used office paper was used as giftwrap or to make small shopping bags.  Later, when I got to the mountains, I saw attractive curtains, purses, and decorations made from potato chip bags and candy wrappers.  The lady from whom I bought a small purse showed me how to make them, and said that volunteers had come to teach people how to turn trash into useful or decorative items that they could sell.

The Philippines does have issues with garbage and pollution. The Garbage Book, a publication by the Asian Development Bank graphically explains the problem with garbage collection and disposal in the Metro Manila area. There are places where people actually live on top of landfills and scavenging copper or anything they can find of value.  The Garbage Book supported what I learned from talking with people about recycling, that it accounts for only a small percentage of overall waste management.  I frequently saw areas strewn with litter, often beside well-kept areas of schools, parks or hotels.  On the other hand, I saw some incredible efforts to address climate change and improve the environment.  I visited the island of Guimaras, where the entire island is powered by wind turbines.  I participated in mangrove bagging, an ongoing community project that has turned a dried up, abandoned pond into a thriving mangrove forest and ecosystem.  While I was in the mangrove forest, a large group of university students came to the area for a beach sweep, or coastal cleanup.

So what happened with my recycling lesson?  Well, the science teacher pulled me out of the fire.  I did talk to the students about recycling facilities, and what types of products can be made from items that are recycled, such as fleece jackets and carpet from plastic bottles. Unfortunately, there was a big storm and the power went out so I couldn’t show any images to help explain what I was talking about so I was boring.  Thank goodness the science teacher had been itching to do a project with the kids and she was more than willing to coordinate the hands-on portion of the recycling lesson.  She had gone home and made a prototype of a recycling container made from empty water bottles.  I had read the instructions and seen a video of this project on YouTube, and was expecting it to be overwhelming.  I forgot that Philippine students are different than typical American students.  They listened to the instructions, came and got a closer look at the model if they needed to, collected their share of supplies, divided the labor among the members of their group and focused on the task at hand.  These kids were using candles to heat the wire to poke holes in the bottles so that they could be wired together. The wind was raging around the   gym, so they had to shelter each other to keep the candles lit.  In less than 45 minutes, 80 kids produced 10 completed recycling containers, some more elaborate than the model, that could be used in their school.  I don’t know when I have been more impressed by a group of students.

Now that I’m back home and school is starting, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can share my experience with my students and colleagues.  Nothing even remotely compares to actually going somewhere, meeting people, and doing things yourself.  One idea I have is to stay focused on the environmental education.  I would love to hook my students up with students from the Philippines and other countries and find out what kinds of environmental outreach they are involved in, such as the mangrove bagging.  My students could get involved in environmental activities here, such as the River Sweep, and share their experiences with students from around the world.  I’m hoping to get my fellow teachers involved in global projects as well.  By meeting other people and sharing ideas, resources, and experiences we can work together in a practical way to make a difference in the environment.

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