Tackling Plastic: The Challenge of the Geo Challenge

Geo Challenge
  • Outside the Classroom
  • Upper Division
Megan Zitron, Upper Division Science Teacher

By Megan Zitron, Upper Division Science Teacher

Our sixth grade students make up a small class of nine students. This has its advantages and challenges. We often refer to our Denver JDS community as a family, and my sixth grade science class is indeed a family in many senses of the word. We squabble like siblings who spend too much time together; we care about each other in a crisis; we go the extra mile when needed, and… we are very competitive.

While the National Geographic GeoBee, sponsored by The National Geographic Society, is well known, a competition known as the Geo Challenge is still in its initial stages. This program challenges student groups in grades five through eight across the United States to develop a creative solution to a real-world problem. 

When Social Studies Chair Peta Miller and I attended the regional Geography Bee at the University of Denver last year, we noticed a few groups of students from different Colorado schools presenting their ideas at the 2018 Geo Challenge, which piqued our interest. This year, when our Science Chair Melanie Knowles “gifted” me with a flyer promoting the next Geo Challenge, I was immediately on board, as were my sixth grade students. 

The theme for this year’s Geo Challenge was “Tackling Plastics in Our Waterways,” an interesting conundrum in landlocked Denver! We were charged to find a solution to decrease the amount of single-use plastics that are discarded in the trash and ultimately land in the oceans. 

One of our teams, Pure Blue, took a local approach. They researched the Cherry Creek and how the river and animals are affected by pollution and plastics in our area. They challenged the Upper and Lower divisions of our school to a plastic collection competition, a water bottle “selfie” board, and wrote a letter to Senator Cory Gardner.

Our other team, Team Crystal Clear, looked further afield and researched plastic pollution in the St. Lawrence River and its impact on the ocean. They designed a prototype — The Claw — to collect, separate, and recycle plastics from the river.

Both teams created exceptional videos as well as 3-D maps presenting their ideas and solutions. This independent and creative approach set them apart and gave them the edge, which in turn led to our invitation to the Regional Competition.

Yes, we learned about the importance of our environment and the science of the last frontier. But most importantly, we learned the value of cooperative learning, how to put creative thinking and problem solving into action, and the value of grit and determination. One of my students commented that, “Adults do not realize how challenging it is for middle school students to work together!”

Regional competitions are held in only 16 places in the entire country, Denver being one of the locations. Denver JDS sixth graders made it to the Colorado regional finals with only eight other schools and presented our best efforts to the jurors. While we did not win, the day was a valuable time to bond and support each other. 

The journey continues as we encourage fellow students to think of their impact on the world at large. Use those reusable water bottles and make a difference!

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