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The lab is buzzing with students at Melvin Kreps Middle School, in East Windsor, as one side of the room washes milk cartons while the other side is awash in color as students paint the washed and dried cartons.

These students are part of Project Green, an after-school club forty members strong that takes on environmental projects such as this “Made by Milk” endeavor in which the students are working to recycle old milk cartons into planters to encourage teachers and students to plant seeds of sustainability.

Down the hall, another group of students are talking solar as they prep for an upcoming solar energy fair in Princeton put on by OASIS. The kids are busy creating posters, a commercial, a website and a tutorial video to entice students throughout the region to take part in Solar Jam this May.

Melvin Kreps is one of the latest schools to join Eco-Schools USA in New Jersey, a partnership between National Wildlife Federation and New Jersey Audubon. This international program recognizes and provides free resources to schools integrating sustainability into the curriculum and on school grounds. Through the Eco-Schools program, schools select from ten environmental focus areas or pathways to work on such as energy efficiency, biodiversity, and sustainable foods. The free and voluntary program has been gaining in popularity in the garden state with 140 schools registered throughout New Jersey.

Eighth grade science teacher, Brianna Reilly says “We are planning on working towards an Eco-Schools Bronze Award. The students are really hungry for it. Their excitement is unbelievable. They are passionate about the environment and really respond to the hands on nature of the projects.” Ms. Reilly started Project Green with science teacher Mary Ann Harrison in 2012.

To win the Bronze Award the school must establish an “Eco-Action Team”, conduct an environmental audit, develop and monitor an Eco-Action plan and include the community. Melvin Kreps is well on their way. In addition to creating planters out of milk cartons, the students also designed and assembled a sculpture out of recycled milk cartons earning them top honors in a national competition.   Last spring students planted a garden in one of the courtyards with the plants grown in Ms. Harrison’s classroom on a lighted planting rack courtesy of a grant from Mercer County Soils.  The endeavor was a “plants for pollinators in the classroom” project using native plants to encourage pollinators.

“It was a wonderful learning experience for our members and a lovely addition to our courtyard that received a great deal of attention from both students and staff.  I look forward to continuing this project each year to spread the word about the importance of using native plants that require less watering and do not have as many pest problems as non-native species do in our gardens,” says Ms. Harrison.

Kari Loyd, a sixth grade science teacher at Melvin Kreps, was recently invited to speak at an Eco-Schools professional development webinar for teachers all across the state to talk about her work with the students at Melvin Kreps and the upcoming Solar Jam event. Jennifer Dowd, Eco-Schools NJ Coordinator with New Jersey Audubon led the webinar.

“That is what makes the Eco-Schools USA program so unique, particularly in New Jersey. There is a sharing of ideas and best practices amongst members and a sense of community with educators who are using sustainability concepts to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and the Arts.”

What’s next for the students at Melvin Kreps? Many of the Project Green kids will stay with the club as they move on to high school. In fact, the program was modelled after Hightstown High School’s club of the same name. Inspired by Solar Jam, some students have big dreams for the future such as working on solar powered phones, airplanes and computers. Sixth grade student Abhinav Mahesh says “I like helping the environment. We just really want to be a part of something that effects future generations.”

There are 19 Eco-Schools in Mercer County including Ben Franklin Elementary School in Lawrenceville which holds the Green Flag Certification, the highest honor awarded by Eco-Schools, Community Park Elementary School, Grant Elementary School, Hamilton High West, Melvin Kreps Middle School, Nottingham High School, The Pennington School, Pennington Montessori School, Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, Princeton Day School, Princeton Friends School, Princeton Junior School, Princeton High School, St. Gregory the Great, Steinert High School, Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Hearth, Village Elementary School, Waldorf School of Princeton, and Wilson Elementary School.

About Eco-Schools

Eco-Schools is an international program in 60 countries. The program, hosted by the National Wildlife Federation in the United States, and coordinated by New Jersey Audubon in New Jersey has 140 schools registered throughout the state. Eco-Schools USA in New Jersey supports and directly aligns with Sustainable Jersey for Schools point-based system. With support from PSE&G, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Horizon Foundation, and Spencer Savings Bank Eco-Schools USA is able to provide a staff person on the ground to help New Jersey schools reach their goals. For more information: http://www.nwf.org/Eco-Schools-USA.aspx

About National Wildlife Federation:

National Wildlife Federation is America’s largest conservation organization inspiring people to protect wildlife for our children’s future. NWF focuses its education and policy work on connecting children to nature for a nation of happier, healthier kids. NWF’s state affiliate is NJ Audubon. For more information: www.nwf.org.

About NJ Audubon:

The New Jersey Audubon Society is a privately supported, not-for profit, statewide membership organization that fosters environmental awareness and a conservation ethic among New Jersey’s citizens; protects New Jersey’s birds, mammals, other animals, and plants, especially endangered and threatened species; and promotes preservation of New Jersey’s valuable natural habitats. For more information: www.njaudubon.org.

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Mary Galioto
Mary Galioto is the founder, publisher and editor of MercerMe, and a lawyer. Originally from Brooklyn, Mary has progressively moved deeper and deeper into New Jersey, settling in the heart of the state: Mercer County. Formerly the author of an embarrassingly informal blog, Mary is a lifelong writer and asker of questions and was even mentioned, albeit briefly, in the New York Times and Washington Post. In her free time, Mary fills her life with excessive self-reflection, photographing mushrooms, and misguided adventures in random hobbies. Mary also works as the PR Coordinator at the Hopewell Valley Arts Council, serves on the volunteer Board of Trustees of the Lawrence Hopewell Trail (LHT), serves on the Hopewell Borough Board of Health, is a member of the Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance, and holds the elected position as the Hopewell Borough Democratic Committee Municipal Chairwoman.

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