Students from New River Middle School in Ft. Lauderdale plant a palm tree as part of their ongoing restoration effort.

The 18th annual Wheelabrator Symposium for Environment and Education in Sunrise, Fla., provided a sneak peek at the next generation of environmental leaders.

From April 30 to May 3, 130 students from 13 middle schools along the East Coast presented solutions to environmental problems their communities are facing.

The schools developed projects over six months while local Wheelabrator Technologies Inc. employees helped them through the process, said Linda Sapienza, director of community relations for the company, which manages 17 waste-to-energy plants and is a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc.

Sapienza said the students learned to apply business principles during the process.

The students had to come up with a plan of action and devise a solution, she said.

They also honed their public speaking skills while presenting to a panel of government officials and educators, she said.

Students from Lawton Chiles Middle Academy in Lakeland, Fla., had a three-pronged approach to their project this year.

The eighth-graders talked about alternatives to using Styrofoam, how plastic can contaminate food while being heated in microwaves, and why blowing yard waste clippings into drain systems isn’t good for the environment.

Thanks to outreach efforts by the students, nearly 650 homeowners took a pledge to stop blowing the clippings into the streets, said Debbie Viertel, a Lawton teacher who has attended seven symposiums.

Managers from the Wheelabrator plant in Auburndale, Fla., approached the school about the symposium and Viertel said the students “accepted the challenge.”

She said her students “performed terrific” at the event and learned that their actions can change the world.

“It was wonderful to watch them get educated. When we had our dress rehearsal dinner, they said ‘We can’t use Styrofoam plates; we can’t use plastic plates; what are [they] going to serve dinner on?’ It really did impact their own personal lives and how many said they were recycling or changing their shopping habits,” Viertel said. “Plus, they enjoyed getting out and teaching adults and other people.”

Working on the projects through the years, she said, has been just as much of a learning experience for her as it is for students.

“For me, it’s a growing process. I’ve learned how to do it much better. I’ve learned how to teach the kids much better. I’ve learned a good design cycle process to help them work through it and add a community service element,” Viertel said.

Gina DiGioia, one of Viertel’s former pupils who was a symposium participant in 2011, said it was an amazing experience. DiGioia, 15, is a freshman this year at International Baccalaureate School at Bartow High in Florida.

“I still have contact with some of my friends from Connecticut,” DiGioia said. “It’s not only a great learning experience, but it also instills friendships.”

Wheelabrator gave the schools $500 for startup money and donates $1,000 more at the end of the school year. The company also takes care of travel expenses.

After the presentations, students were treated with a trip to the Miami Seaquarium. In addition, all of the symposium participants are eligible for a scholarship to Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., as a result of a partnership between Wheelabrator and the university.

Barbara Rapoza, New River Middle School Students from New River Middle School in Ft. Lauderdale plant a palm tree as part of their ongoing restoration effort.

Students from New River Middle School in  Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., described their ongoing projects to improve  waterway health and protect the turtle population during nesting season,  said Barbara Rapoza, a seventh-grade marine science teacher attending  her sixth symposium.

Students planted mangrove seedlings near the coastline. Once the  mangroves mature, their roots will serve as nurseries for fish, Rapoza  said. They also planted shrubs and palm trees to ward off beach erosion.

“Wheelabrator is providing us with funding to go out and do these  hands-on projects in the community,” Rapoza said. “[We] see the outcome  as the years go by.”

Sapienza said the company wants to develop decision-makers and get them active in their communities.

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