Celebrate these Peterborough students who led a water conservation project at their school

Monsignor O'Donaghue grade 8 students inspired after watching documentary on plastic pollution in the world's oceans

Before schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Grade 8 students at Monsignor O'Donaghue Catholic Elementary School showed off a newly installed water bottle refill station at the school, part of a student-led project called "CAPS off Water", an acronym representing the conservation, awareness, protection, and stewardship of water. GreenUP has awarded the students its School Engagement Award for their work on the project. Pictured from left to right: Shannon Elliott, Molly Sharman, Jacob Colocci, John Velasquez, Cooper Cook, and Noah Bowler. (Photo: GreenUP)
Before schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Grade 8 students at Monsignor O'Donaghue Catholic Elementary School showed off a newly installed water bottle refill station at the school, part of a student-led project called "CAPS off Water", an acronym representing the conservation, awareness, protection, and stewardship of water. GreenUP has awarded the students its School Engagement Award for their work on the project. Pictured from left to right: Shannon Elliott, Molly Sharman, Jacob Colocci, John Velasquez, Cooper Cook, and Noah Bowler. (Photo: GreenUP)

With schools closed, youth across Ontario are missing out on in-person celebrations of their accomplishments this year. GreenUP’s Wonders of Water team would like your help in celebrating the remarkable achievements of a group of grade 8 students at Monsignor O’Donaghue Catholic Elementary School in the east end of Peterborough.

Please toast with us as you read this story — raise a glass of water in honour of these student leaders.

This story begins in September 2019. The grade 8 class at Monsignor O’Donaghue — MO’D as it is affectionately known — was starting their science program for the year. As part of a new “deep learning” process, the students were given the freedom to lead their own learning through problem solving and collaboration.

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The teachers, Ashley Fitzgerald and Krista Wells-Skinners, assumed the role of supportive facilitators instead of directors or leaders.

Their science program began with a screening of A Plastic Ocean, a 2016 documentary film that looks at plastic pollution choking the world’s oceans and emphasizes the need for a “wave of change”.

VIDEO: “A Plastic Ocean” Trailer

“We had group discussions about the documentary,” explains student A.J. Whitney. “We had to be patient and inclusive. It was so much fun sharing my ideas and having very loose guidelines.”

After much discussion, the students narrowed their focus on how they wanted to proceed in their science program for the year.

“The kids were the ones making all the decisions,” observes grade 8 student Erin Livings.

Before schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Monsignor O'Donaghue's Earth Day assembly focus group meet with GreenUP's Karen O'Krafka to organize the flow of the school-wide assembly they were planning at Monsignor O'Donaghue. From left to right: Owen Cook, Karen O'Krafka, Noah Bowler, Caleb Nusink, Jacob Colocci, Cooper Cook, Nate O'Brien. (Photo: GreenUP)
Before schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Monsignor O’Donaghue’s Earth Day assembly focus group meet with GreenUP’s Karen O’Krafka to organize the flow of the school-wide assembly they were planning at Monsignor O’Donaghue. From left to right: Owen Cook, Karen O’Krafka, Noah Bowler, Caleb Nusink, Jacob Colocci, Cooper Cook, Nate O’Brien. (Photo: GreenUP)

The students felt strongly about being part of that “wave of change” mentioned in the documentary. They wanted to support water preservation with real actions, and they wanted to start with goals for change right at home by focusing on the use of water in the school itself.

“We chose the water refill station as our goal,” says Austin Gallagher, one of the students who led this project. “Our water stations at the time barely worked. We wanted to promote reusable water bottles so less people would bring in disposable water bottles.”

Applying for a Wonders of Water Deep Learning Water Retrofit was one way to realize that goal. Karen O’Krafka, coordinator of GreenUP’s Wonders of Water program, had sent the retrofit grant expression of interest criteria to all Peterborough city and county schools. The students reviewed the criteria and wrote an email to O’Krafka asking for support to change their school’s infrastructure and, ultimately, their relationship with water.

Before schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Monsignor O'Donaghue school communication focus group shared their hand-made water conservation posters. From left to right: Ella Doris, Erin Livings, John Velasquez, Mija Kavcic-Crowhurst, Sara McMahon, and Meline Dole. (Photo: GreenUP)
Before schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Monsignor O’Donaghue school communication focus group shared their hand-made water conservation posters. From left to right: Ella Doris, Erin Livings, John Velasquez, Mija Kavcic-Crowhurst, Sara McMahon, and Meline Dole. (Photo: GreenUP)

Citing aging water fountain infrastructure at MO’D as a driving reason for dependence on single-use plastic water bottles, the email proposed a student-researched solution. They would install water bottle refill stations at MO’D, and use this important water retrofit as the catalyst for a school-wide water education program designed and delivered by the grade 8 students themselves.

The students named their project “CAPS off Water”, an acronym representing the conservation, awareness, protection, and stewardship of water. These are the core pillars of the Peterborough Children’s Water Festival and the basis of the Wonders of Water Program. “CAPS off Water” is also a useful mnemonic for remembering the goal of reducing single-use plastic water bottles.

The students formed groups to focus on all the different areas they wanted to cover. As part of this school-wide education program, students took on a broad range of projects.

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They made art displays communicating the core elements of water conservation. They applied for additional grants, including Ecoleague funding. They designed reusable water bottles. They wrote children’s books about plastic pollution in water. They created awareness-building posters. The students even planned to lead their very own World Water Day assembly in advance of the Peterborough Children’s Water Festival.

Each of these projects was completely spearheaded by the students and their vision for creating an enduring legacy at MO’D.

“We had come to a decision that we thought would have a lasting impact on the school,” says student Lucas Pronk.

In December 2019, Monsignor O'Donaghue students celebrated their successful water retrofit application by rotating through festive stations. At this station, students decorate gingerbread folks while brainstorming what the expression “We are Water” means to them. From left to right: Lauren Graham, Nate O'Brian, Cooper Cook, Owen Cook, Sara McMahon, Isabel Brockley, and Kylie Lake. (Photo: GreenUP)
In December 2019, Monsignor O’Donaghue students celebrated their successful water retrofit application by rotating through festive stations. At this station, students decorate gingerbread folks while brainstorming what the expression “We are Water” means to them. From left to right: Lauren Graham, Nate O’Brian, Cooper Cook, Owen Cook, Sara McMahon, Isabel Brockley, and Kylie Lake. (Photo: GreenUP)

As a result of the collaborative efforts of these students, two water refill stations were installed at MO’D before March break.

“After the water stations were installed, it was amazing to see how many kids were using them,” observes student Ireland Payne.

“It was so much fun to see this project go from an idea to having a line-up at the water refill station,” adds student Macy Harper.

Before schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students at Monsignor O'Donaghue point to Peterborough while they explore the significance of the world's fresh water. From left to right: Noah Bowler, Molly Sharman, Shannon Elliott, John Velasquez, Jacob Colocci, and Cooper Cook. (Photo: GreenUP)
Before schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students at Monsignor O’Donaghue point to Peterborough while they explore the significance of the world’s fresh water. From left to right: Noah Bowler, Molly Sharman, Shannon Elliott, John Velasquez, Jacob Colocci, and Cooper Cook. (Photo: GreenUP)

To celebrate Earth Day in April, the students had planned to host an assembly, a media event, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony. They had eagerly designed an activity centre for the Peterborough Children’s Water Festival to demonstrate peer-to-peer learning.

Then schools closed and the water festival cancelled because of COVID-19.

While we can’t demonstrate this remarkable student-led learning and leadership in large gatherings as the students had planned, we can still celebrate and share the accomplishments of these students with you at home.

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Together apart, we can share with you that this group of remarkable student leaders at Monsignor O’Donaghue have been awarded with GreenUP’s School Engagement Award for participation in education workshops and events, including the Wonders of Water workshops and Active School Travel planning.

Thank you for reading this article and sharing in this celebration from home.

You can find out more about the Wonders of Water program at greenup.on.ca/wow or connect with Karen O’Krafka, GreenUP’s Water Education Programs Coordinator, at karen.okrafka@greenup.on.ca.

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