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Trash Is Treasure
By Katharine Gammon
Landfill-bound materials take a detour to enliven classroom learning.
On a hot Monday morning in July, a warehouse in Gardena, California, buzzed with activity. The 6,500-square-foot space looked like a child’s fantasy playground with green walls covered in giant spools of thread and floors lined with row after row of blue plastic barrels full of yarn, shiny Mylar, glass, and other sundry items.
Everything in the warehouse was originally destined for a California landfill. But Steve and Kathy Stanton are repurposing all of it for Trash for Teaching, or T4T, an innovative program that reuses industrial cast-off materials to create discovery-based science learning experiences for students.
"From our work so far, it seems to be much more important to provide students with challenging experiences so they can strengthen their own critical thinking skills and their notions of tenacity instead of just learning particular content."
The Stantons run a local company that makes boxes for commercial candy manufacturers. In 2004, Steve, who was trained as an architect, drove by a huge trash bin full of yellow foam “fingers” behind a paint roller manufacturer. He stopped to help himself to a bag of foam. The business owner, who couldn’t understand why Stanton wanted the trash, was not pleased. Today, after eight years of successful programs in area schools, Stanton gets a different reaction—close to 100 businesses donate their weird and wonderful trash to support T4T, anywhere from monthly to once per year.
T4T originally focused on arts but turned its rubbish-repurposing energy to science in 2011. The organization is working with 150 California schools to create science-based afterschool programs fed by rolling carts stuffed with supplies. The group also helps schools integrate discovery-based learning programs into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) classes from elementary to high school. T4T is part of a larger movement to return discovery to classrooms.
Steve Stanton says they try to move 1,000 pounds of materials out of the warehouse every month, all aimed at encouraging students to think creatively and critically. For example, one open-ended challenge asks kids to design the ultimate recycling machine, able to transport a can into a blue bin 15 feet away. According to Shiva Mandell, T4T’s director of creative programming, hands-on learning and experimentation often create an excitement for science that the participants didn’t know they had.
Illustration: Jason Ford