While 23 states currently define MSW incineration as a renewable energy source, a new report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) contends that burning trash is “neither clean nor renewable.”
In spite of their economic, environmental and public health drawbacks, the report notes, many incinerators continue to be buoyed by green energy subsidies: 68% of operating facilities are located in states that classify them as a renewable source. Furthermore, states without incinerators still allow for the purchase of out-of-state renewable energy credits — opening the possibility of investment in incinerator-generated power from neighboring states.
Rather than permitting the continual exploitation of the renewable energy landscape by incinerators, concludes the report, policymakers and advocates must push for legislation curtailing their influence while simultaneously shifting toward cleaner, economically superior options — including “zero waste,” circular economy and solar energy.
With many of the country’s incinerators nearing the end of their lifespans, advocacy groups are ramping up efforts to shut down local facilities. The ILSR paper, released Dec. 12, provides fuel for their arguments: waste incineration, maintains author Marie Donahue, represents an increasingly unviable financial, environmental and public health burden for cities.
The economic argument against incinerators is clear, notes Donahue — as energy prices continuing to decline, many incinerators are struggling to remain profitable. And while some are attempting to shoulder operating costs by raising tip fees (rates at incinerators are often two or three times higher than comparable recycling or composting costs), the extra revenue often still proves insufficient: multiple operators have announced plans to shutter sites in the face of financial pressures.
Burning trash, the paper points out, also poses significant health risks — harmful emissions have been linked to cancer, respiratory illness and cardiovascular disease — and, as the bulk of incinerators are built in marginalized communities of color, constitutes a textbook example of environmental injustice. It also comes with a significant environmental cost: incinerators produce 2.5 times more carbon dioxide per unit of energy generated than coal power plants. According to Donahue, fewof the benefits of WTE actually justify these drawbacks — more energy can be saved through waste prevention, reuse, recycling or composting than can be generated through incineration.
Ultimately, the report dismisses the concept of renewable trash burning as a “legal oxymoron” propagated by the incineration industry to attract green energy subsidies. Rather than continuing to hand out subsidies to incinerators, it concludes, policymakers and environmental advocates should turn toward more sustainable options — including “zero waste,” pay-as-you-throw programs, solar energy and dual-stream recycling.
Recent developments indicate growing political support in certain states for incineration divestment: proposed legislation to drastically reduce Baltimore Wheelabrator’s emissions — and strip the facility of its green energy label — is gaining traction among state and local officials, while pressure from environmental groups in California helped stall a 2017 bill that would have granted WTE facilities renewable energy tax credits.
WTE proponents, however, argue that incinerators remain an environmentally superior alternative to landfills — currently the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the country. And while anti-incineration groups tout a host of sustainable alternatives to both WTE and landfilling, advocates commonly recognize a 90% diversion rate as the ceiling — leaving officials with limited options at present for the 10% of waste that can’t be recycled or composted.
In 1986, when the Detroit waste-to-energy incinerator first opened, activists scaled its enormous smokestack and hung a peace symbol on it in protest. When the same kind of incinerator opened in Commerce, California, in 1989, protesters chained themselves to the facility’s smokestack.
Thirty years later, the communities that live in their shadow are still protesting these facilities. Built to last about 30 years, many of America’s 86 waste-to-energy incinerators are reaching the end of their lifespans—and their contracts with the cities that house them—and they face costly upgrades if they are to remain operational.
“Cities are at a critical stage right now,” says Ahmina Maxey, the United States and Canada coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. “Do they invest millions more into ancient technologies, or take those millions of dollars and invest them into strong zero-waste systems?”
The groups’ organizers come from, and work in, what United Workers’ Destiny Watford describes as “communities that have been disinvested in, that have been ignored and neglected for generations.”
“[These organizers] have been dealing with the health consequences of living next to this industry, and it feels like it’s normal,” she says. Watford and her fellow organizers are working to disrupt what she calls “the trance” of accepting life next to an incinerator, with its attendant threats to the environment, city finances, and residents’ health.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, when most operational incinerators in the U.S. were built, the technology behind solar and wind energy was in its infancy. Coal accounted for around 60 percent of America’s electricity production, down to about 30 percent in 2017. Climate change wasn’t widely considered an urgent problem, and people didn’t talk much about recycling. Politicians, concerned about diminishing landfill space and the rising costs of fossil fuels, seized upon waste-to-energy as a solution.
Proponents of waste-to-energy facilities say that these incinerators help fight climate change by diverting trash from greenhouse gas-emitting landfills and that modern pollution controls prevent the facilities from harming nearby communities. The Environmental Protection Agency, which classifies WTE incineration as a renewable energy source, reported a major decrease in incinerators’ emissions of some pollutants like mercury, dioxins, and nitrogen oxide between 1990 and 2005. And the steam the facilities generate can be used, as is done in Detroit and Baltimore, for heating.
Some advocates even push back against labeling the facilities “incinerators,” a word that conjures images of dirty smoke belching into the sky. Detroit Renewable Energy, which operates the Detroit facility, describes it as a “modern waste-to-energy facility that generates renewable energy in the form of electricity and steam by safely processing municipal solid waste.”
Incinerators’ opponents counter that the real choice isn’t between landfills and incineration—it’s between incineration and a radically different approach centered on reducing waste in the first place; upping recycling, composting, and reuse rates; and investing in solar and wind power. They take particular issue with the notion that waste-to-energy incineration is clean and safe for area residents.
‘ASSAULTED EVERY DAY WITH TOXIC POLLUTION’
Thanks to new rules implemented by the EPA in the 1990s, incinerators are much cleaner than they once were. But older facilities can struggle to comply with today’s emissions limits.
Watford says that the communities around Baltimore’s incinerator have “a long history with pollution.” Thanks to a number of factors—which may include disproportionate exposure to toxins—the area’s mostly black residents are expectedto die 10 years sooner than residents of the city’s more affluent areas. For every 100,000 residents in Baltimore, according to a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 130 die in a given year because of long-term exposure to air pollution. That’s the highest rate in the nation.
The community is “assaulted every day with toxic pollution,” Logan says The area’s spike in cancers and respiratory illnesses convinced him to change careers from manufacturing to community organizing. When he asked community members whether environmental pollution had affected them or their families, people “overwhelmingly responded yes.” “A number of folks that have now passed identified the incinerator as the cause of their illness,” he says.
“For us in Detroit,” says KT Andresky, an organizer with Breathe Free Detroit, “[the incinerator] is a textbook case of environmental racism.” Over 70 percent of nearby residents are low-income, and the same proportion are people of color. Critics of the facility argue that Detroiters bear the brunt of its odor and emissions, even though most of the trash it processes is trucked in from wealthier, whiter areas like neighboring Oakland County.
Using invoices obtained through a public records request, Nicholas Leonard, a staff attorney at the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, estimated that just 22 percent of the waste the facility processes comes from the city. (Detroit Renewable Energy disputes this finding. In an email, it says 73 percent of the trash comes from inside the city of Detroit, and 83 percent from Wayne County.)
The Detroit incinerator isn’t required by state or federal regulators to have pollution controls for nitrogen oxide, a gas that increases the risk of respiratory conditions and contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone, otherwise known as smog. Residents are hospitalized for asthma at rates three times the state’s average, and those who live in the zip codes next to the incinerator have the highest rates of asthma-related hospitalization in the city.
In a statement emailed to Pacific Standard, Detroit Renewable Energy Chief Operating Officer Carl Lockhart writes: “Protecting the environment and public health is our top responsibility. We adhere to strict state and federal guidelines and utilize constant monitoring to ensure we are meeting and exceeding expectations.”
A JUST TRANSITION
The groups involved in the Failing Incinerator Project say they’re committed to a “just transition” away from incineration, starting with economic disincentivization. A just transition means boosting their cities’ recycling and composting efforts to keep un-incinerated trash out of landfills. In Baltimore, for example, a 2014 report found that 82 percent of the city’s trash could have been recycled or composted, though only 28 percent of it was that year.
“We have to be building up these zero-waste alternatives,” Watford says, “so that when we finally do shut down [the incinerator], we have a zero-waste alternative right there.” She cites a youth-led composting initiative out of the Filbert Street Garden, which will receive part of a $200,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to the city of Baltimore. Food waste makes up 21 percent of typical municipal trash.
A just transition also means having a plan for the facility’s workers, and the surrounding community, when the facility closes. Maxey contends that 10 jobs in recycling could be created for every job in incineration or landfilling—and that jobs in recycling are less damaging to workers’ health.
In Detroit, the area near the incinerator has been slow to attract residents or development, in part because of the “unbearable” odor Andresky says wafts through the neighborhood most days. (It’s not just Andresky: The facility received so many odor complaints that it was placed under a consent decree in 2014.) Breathe Free Detroit wants to ensure that, “when that facility closes, after decades of organizing against it, folks aren’t gentrified out of their own community,” Maxey says.
PUTTING PRESSURE ON THE INCINERATORS
The organizers have also been putting financial pressure on the incinerators. In Baltimore, United Workers and other environmental groups are pushing the Maryland state legislature to take incineration out of its renewable energy portfolio, which subsidizes the purchase of renewable energy. The Baltimore Sunestimates the Wheelabrator facility has received $10 million worth of subsidies from the program. Last year, the state senate passed such a measure, but it died in the House of Delegates.
Brooke Harper, the Maryland and Washington, D.C., policy director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, says, “The whole intention of the renewable energy portfolio system was to incentivize new renewable energy sources, clean energy sources, like wind and solar”—rather than facilities like the Wheelabrator incinerator, the city’s largest source of air pollution.
The efforts of Maryland-based groups are informed by the work of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice in California, which recently helped defeat a measure offering renewable energy tax credits to incinerators. Without those subsidies, and unable to negotiate a favorable new purchase agreement with electricity supplier Southern California Edison, the Commerce facility hit what Logan described as a “fiscal cliff,” and closed.
“If subsidies are not going to the incinerator,” Watford says, “it puts the city in a really tough spot. Does the city have to pay the difference, or do they embrace these zero-waste alternatives and create a new path forward?”
United Workers and others have advocated forstricter nitrogen oxide emissions limits for Wheelabrator. Thanks in part to these efforts, the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution in September asking the Maryland Department of Energy–which regulates the facility’s emissions–to do just that. If adopted, the new limits might require the facility to install expensive state-of-the-art pollution controls.
Under current regulations, Wheelabrator is allowed to emit up to 205 ppm of nitrogen oxide. But the city council has requested that the figure be cut to at most 150 ppm, or, ideally, to 45 ppm to match what would likely be the limit for a new incinerator. The marketing manager for Wheelabrator told the Baltimore Brew that complying with the proposed rules would cost the facility $1.6 million over the first three years, and $400,000 annually after that.
The city council has also requested a feasibility study on installing state-of-the-art pollution controls. At a 2017 Maryland Department of the Environment stakeholders meeting, Timothy Porter, Wheelabrator’s director of air quality programs, maintained that it wasn’t possible to install such controls in the incinerator’s existing space. But two engineers—one employed by the Environmental Integrity Project, one a consultant for their partner organization, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation—say that they have found no technical barriers.
If required to install the controls, Porter said, “We’d shut down.”
In Detroit, Andresky tells me, they’re working to get businesses to stop purchasing steam created by incineration, which would cut into the facility’s revenues. Watford’s group used a similar tactic to block the construction of a proposed incinerator elsewhere in South Baltimore: They went to each entity that had signed on to purchase its energy and convinced them to drop the deal. The existing incinerator, Watford says, “is interwoven into our city’s fabric, and we have to detangle that if we’re going to build true zero-waste alternatives.”
Claire Arkin, communications and campaign associate at GAIA, says it’s “inevitable” that these “dinosaur” facilities will close, because upgrades and repair are simply too expensive. In 2010, Maxey points out, the ballooning costs of a 46-year-old incineratorpushed the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to the brink of bankruptcy.
Arkin’s words rang in my ears as I watched a recent Long Beach City Council meeting, at which members unanimously voted to allocate $8.7 million to upgrades that will keep the facility running until 2024. (Covanta, the facility’s operator, will kick in an additional $5 million).If the city council chooses to renew its contract at that point, an additional $100 million capital infusion would be required to keep it open until 2040, according to documents received through Pacific Standard’s public records request. The facility’s power purchase agreement with Southern California Edison will expire this year, adding another layer of uncertainty to its future.
Pressure from concerned community members may help shape that future. In an email about the vote obtained through a public records request, Charlie Tripp, the facility’s bureau manager, expressed his concern about whether the amended agreement, which provided the funding for necessary upgrades, would pass. “We have been getting more questions on this item than any items we have previously had,” he wrote. “My concern is that something could happen like happened with Commerce,” where a waste-to-energy incinerator recently closed, in part thanks to public pressure on potential revenue streams.
The cities of Long Beach, Detroit, and Baltimore have each committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, and advocates of closing waste incinerators say that moving away from incineration, and toward zero waste, will accomplish just that. “We tend to look at waste as separate from its origins,” Arkin says. “If we look at the extractive way trash is made, the fossil fuels involved in creation, and the transport of these disposable items, it adds up to a huge piece of the puzzle in solving our climate crisis.”
“We are past the tipping point on our planet,” Maxey says. “Our planet cannot afford any more unnecessary carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases released into the environment. And that’s what these facilities do.”
There are a significant number of drawbacks to consistent mammograms and recent research demonstrates this test does not reduce your risk of death from the disease
Mammograms, used to detect breast cancer, employ ionizing radiation that carries a risk of developing cancer; new 3-D mammography, also called breast tomosynthesis, uses more radiation to achieve sharper images
Data show after 10 mammograms you have a 50 to 60 percent risk of receiving a false positive result, potentially necessitating further testing with more radiation or even treatment
You may be able to prevent 75 to 90 percent of breast cancers through lifestyle changes such as reducing exposure to hazardous toxins, seeking out organic products, severely reducing refined sugar and fructose and limiting protein
By Dr. Mercola
There are a significant number of drawbacks to having consistent mammograms. Although your doctor may say that having a mammogram may reduce your risk of dying by 20 percent,1 you’d be surprised by how that percentage is calculated. As explained by Dr. Andrew Lazris and environmental scientist Erik Rifkin, Ph.D., for every 1,000 women who do not get mammograms, five will die from breast cancer. For every 1,000 women who do get regular mammograms, four will die.
The difference between those two groups is 20 percent, or the one person whose life is saved by getting a mammogram. Now, a new study from the Netherlands demonstrates that no matter how this number was calculated, it is likely not accurate.2 What’s worse, the reverse side of the equation is that more women are actually harmed by the procedure or undergo unnecessary treatment as a result of false positives.
Mammograms Are Not Saving Lives
The study analyzed the reason fewer women are dying from breast cancer in the Netherlands after an aggressive screening program was instituted in 1989, including regular mammograms.3 Screening programs make the assumption that early detection is easier to treat and will result in better outcomes. Participants in the study were Dutch women who were screened every other year between 1989 and 2012. Nearly 8 million women were included in the data analysis.
The research was led by Dr. Philippe Autier from the University of Strathclyde Institute of Public Health. The intention was to determine if regular screening with a mammogram would affect the number of advanced cases of breast cancers detected and the number of deaths from the disease.4
In a previous study, in which the researchers used some of the same data, they found a decrease in the incidence of some advanced breast cancers that indicated the use of widespread mammography had been effective in reducing the number of deaths and improving early treatment. However, when the researchers expanded the analysis of the data, they failed to find the same reduction. During the period of the featured study, there had been no significant decrease in the extent of diagnosis of stage 2 to stage 4 breast cancers.5
Initially, the reduction in the number of women dying from breast cancer was attributed to a combination of environmental, lifestyle and genetic factors. These factors may have resulted in a 5 percent reduction between 1995 and 2012. Although the number of stage 0 and stage 1 cancers diagnosed increased sharply, the number of later stage cancers remained stable.6
Next, the researchers analyzed the data to determine what impacted the reduction in deaths from breast cancer if it wasn’t an aggressive screening program. The researchers found that 85 percent of the observed decrease in deaths was related to improvements in treatment and not as a result of mammograms identifying lesions.
How Mammograms Work
A mammogram is an X-ray image of breast tissue, taken in the hopes of detecting abnormal cellular growth that may indicate breast cancer. The X-ray doesn’t actually image a tumor growth, but rather looks for alterations in the tissue, which may be indicative of a tumor. It is also possible that some advanced tumors grow without expected tissue changes and thus go undetected.7
During a mammogram, your breast tissue is compressed against two plates to reduce the amount of tissue the X-ray must travel through, thereby reducing the amount of radiation needed and blurring from unintentional movement.8 The machine produces small bursts of ionizing radiation that may be read on film or digitally.
A newer type of mammography uses many low-dose X-rays as the machine moves over the breast. This imaging study is known as 3D mammography or breast tomosynthesis,9 during which the breast tissue is compressed once and a computer makes a three-dimensional image. However, while this type of image may produce clearer results, you also receive greater amounts of radiation.
The issue with either a traditional mammogram or 3D mammography is that you are exposed to ionizing radiation. This exposure carries significant health risks, including actually causing cancer and increasing your risk of breast cancer. Researchers have determined that women who carry the BRCA1/2 mutation may have greater vulnerability to radiation-induced cancers.10
Data suggests you have a 50 to 60 percent chance of receiving a false positive result after 10 yearly mammograms.11 Unfortunately, these positive results may lead to further mammograms, biopsies and sometimes to treatments, including partial mastectomy.12
Mammograms Are Not Preventive Medicine
During the featured study, Autier found the mammograms overdiagnosed 59 percent of stage 1 cancers and 33 percent of stage 0 cancers.13 In other words, the lesions that were found by the mammograms didn’t necessarily require any treatment. These findings support previous work published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which concluded that finding additional small cancers without an absence in the overall rate of death suggest widespread overdiagnosis and overtreatment.14
Since the tumors had been identified, women were undergoing treatment they didn’t require. In fact, one study demonstrated $4 billion is spent each year on health care following false positive mammograms.15
Autier commented,16 “I don’t think the accumulating data show that continuing mammography screening is a good solution, essentially because the price to pay by women in terms of overdiagnosis is enormous.” Prevention is clearly the best medicine when it comes to cancer, but screening does not qualify as prevention.
Optimal Vitamin D Levels Associated With Cancer Prevention
Research into optimal levels of vitamin D have repeatedly demonstrated levels within a range of 40 to 60 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) provides impressive cancer protection. I believe testing your vitamin D levels twice a year is one of the most important cancer prevention tests available. While there may be times when a mammogram may be warranted, there are also other nonionizing alternatives that may get the job done.
Ultrasound, for example, has been shown to be considerably superior to mammography, especially for women with dense breast tissue who are at a much higher risk of a false negative mammogram. Getting back to prevention, in one recent study,17 researchers found a strong association between vitamin D levels and breast cancer progression and metastasis. One of the authors of the study, Dr. Brian Feldman of Stanford University School of Medicine, commented:18
“A number of large studies have looked for an association between vitamin D levels and cancer outcomes, and the findings have been mixed. Our study identifies how low levels of vitamin D circulating in the blood may play a mechanistic role in promoting breast cancer growth and metastasis.”
Higher levels of vitamin D are also associated with an increased likelihood of survival from breast cancer.19 In animal models, researchers have demonstrated breast cancer tumors are more likely to grow and metastasize faster in mice who are deficient in vitamin D.20 In one study using human subjects, patients who had an average of 30 ng/ml of vitamin D had a 50 percent lower mortality rate compared to those who had an average level of 17 ng/ml of vitamin D.21
The ideal way to optimize your vitamin D level is through sensible sun exposure, as there are many benefits to sun exposure that are unrelated to vitamin D. For instance, near-infrared rays from the sun stimulate your body to structure water and increase mitochondrial repair and regeneration. This is one of the reasons I moved to Florida. I have not swallowed vitamin D in over eight years and still have levels over 60 ng/ml.
If you live in a northern climate and have low vitamin D, taking an oral vitamin D3 supplement is certainly recommended. However, remember this is a far inferior way to optimize your levels. It is also important to measure your vitamin D levels twice a year to make sure you’re within a healthy range. To learn more about the links between vitamin D status and cancer, please see “Higher Vitamin D Levels Lower Cancer Risk.”
Steps You Can Take to Reduce Your Risk of Cancer
According to recent research published in Environmental Health Perspectives,22 you can reduce your risk of breast cancer by avoiding certain chemicals found in common, everyday products. Researchers identified 216 chemicals that increase mammary gland tumors in rodents, which they then narrowed down to 102 chemicals and prioritized based on exposure. This resulted in the following 17 chemical groups, flagged as “high priority” due to their ability to consistently produce mammary tumors in test animals.
Acrylamide: Diet (especially starchy foods, such as french fries, cooked at high temperatures), tobacco smoke, and polyacrylamide gels in consumer products such as diapers
Aromatic amines: Polyurethane, pesticides, Azo dyes and many other products
Benzene: Gasoline (riding in a car, pumping gasoline, and storing gasoline in a basement or attached garage), tobacco smoke, adhesive removers, paints, sealants, finishers, and engine fuel and oils
Halogenated organic solvents: Dry cleaning, hair spray propellant, soil fumigants, food processing, gasoline additives, and paint and spot removers
Ethylene (EtO) and propylene oxide (PO): EtO is a gas used to sterilize medical equipment, food and spices, clothing and musical instruments; also found in tobacco smoke and auto exhaust.
PO is a sterilant and fumigant; also found in automotive and paint products
1,3-Butadiene: Cigarette smoke, automobile exhaust, gasoline fumes and emissions from industrial facilities
Heterocyclic amines: Meat cooked at high temperatures and tobacco smoke
Endogenous and pharmaceutical hormones and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals: Estrogens, progesterone and DES, along with other hormones
Nonhormonal pharmaceuticals that have hormonal activity: These include four chemotherapeutic agents, two veterinary drugs possibly present in food, the diuretic furosemide, the antifungal griseofulvin and several anti-infective agents
MX: One of hundreds of genotoxic by-products of drinking water disinfection
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA): Nonstick and stain-resistant coatings on rugs, furniture, clothes and cookware; fire-fighting applications, cosmetics, lubricants, paints and adhesives
Nitro-PAHs: Air pollution, primarily from diesel exhaust
PAHs: Tobacco smoke, air pollution and charred foods
Ochratoxin A (a naturally occurring mycotoxin): Contaminated grain, nuts and pork products
Styrene: Food that has been in contact with polystyrene; consumer products and building materials, including polystyrene, carpets, adhesives, hobby and craft supplies, and home maintenance products
Parabens are used as preservatives in antiperspirants, sun lotions and many cosmetics. Studies have demonstrated that all parabens have estrogenic activity in human breast cancer cells.23,24,25,26 Further, a study found one or more paraben esters in 99 percent of 160 tissue samples collected from 40 mastectomies.27 The consistent presence of parabens suggests products containing the esters may also increase your risk of breast cancer.
Although antiperspirants are a common source of parabens, the authors of one study note that the source could not be established, and seven of the 40 patients reportedly never used deodorant or antiperspirant in their lifetime. This suggests that regardless of the source, parabens bioaccumulate in breast tissue. And, as parabens are found in a wide variety of personal care products, cosmetics and drugs, exposure is not limited to one source.
The American Institute for Cancer Research estimates that by making three lifestyle changes, you may be able to prevent 33 percent of all breast cancers.28 Those steps include getting and staying fit, maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding alcohol. However, I believe by applying lifestyle modifications outlined in my previous article, “Top Tips to Decrease Your Breast Cancer Risk,” you may prevent 75 percent to 90 percent of breast cancer diagnoses.
Implementing prevention strategies is much more powerful than early detection as they improve your overall health and reduce your risk of exposure to chemical hazards, including chemotherapeutic drugs. Aside from eating organic foods, I also recommend seeking out organically produced items, such as clothing and bed linens (ideally GOTS certified), cosmetics and other personal care items, detergents and cleaning products.
Accumulated exposure to toxins and endocrine-disrupting chemicals from a variety of sources has a compound effect on your health, as many of these chemicals are poorly metabolized or eliminated from your body, if at all.
Editor’s Note: Kevin Bushweller is the Executive Editor of EdWeek Market Brief. This analysis is part of a special report exploring pressing trends in education. Read the full report: 10 Big Ideas in Education.
The most meaningful learning happens outside school.
Take a moment to think about that statement.
It does not mean that meaningful learning is not happening inside schools. Or that all learning that occurs outside schools is meaningful.
But there is a growing argument that the most powerful, relevant learning for today’s students is happening when they connect with the rapidly changing world beyond the school walls to solve problems, explore ideas, rally for a cause, or learn a new technical skill.
Is asking better questions the key to nurturing student curiosity? Scroll down for a Q&A with Andrew P. Minigan.
I have been covering K-12 education for more than 30 years. During that time, I have watched my three sons go through the public schools, enter college, and join the workforce; my daughter is now making her way through high school. They had wonderful teachers and attended very good schools, for the most part.
What was largely missing, though, was a feeling that they were being prepared for the technological and economic changes ahead or how to make a difference in the world. They were not solving real problems and exploring new ideas—rather, they were turning in assignments and getting grades. And for all four of them, the most meaningful learning often happened when they weren’t in school.
That is also a theme that is emerging in our Education Week series, Faces of the Future, which tells stories about ambitious, creative young people who are pushing well beyond the boundaries of school, finding new ways to learn advanced computer science, tackle big challenges, map an uncharted future, and sometimes get in trouble.
Consider the case of Emma Yang, a teenager who Education Week reporter Benjamin Herold profiled last fall as part of this series. She is the youngest student to ever take part in a mentorship program to build “computational thinking” at Wolfram Research, a private company that creates computational technologies.
Initially, Emma worked on a project for Wolfram analyzing police-department data to identify patterns that might explain where, when, and why cars crash in New York City. Then she used machine-learning techniques to teach computers to recognize road signs, a vital feature for self-driving cars. She followed that up by using those same techniques to detect cancerous tumors in human lungs.
“Sometimes, when I’m curious to learn more, people will say, ‘You won’t understand ’til later,'” she told Education Week. “But at my mentorship program, they give me all the information I want, and I can go as deep into it as I want. I really appreciate that.”
Emma’s curiosity and enthusiasm to dive deeply into a topic reminded me of when I took my then-elementary-school-age daughter to visit my older brother’s University of Virginia biochemistry lab. My daughter was fascinated by the dry ice bubbling up in water, the multi-colored protein solutions in beakers, and computers seemingly everywhere. She was one of those little kids who liked to take various liquids and solids in the house and mix them up to see what would happen—so when she got to see the real thing, her eyes were bulging with excitement. And it became even more meaningful when she learned her uncle was doing research to develop new treatments for cancer.
But back at school, inside the classroom, it was a different story. There were few, if any, lab experiments and eventually science became boring and irrelevant to her. It was no longer about exploring ideas and solving problems. It was about memorizing facts and figures and preparing for quizzes and tests.
Few schools have figured out how to connect meaningful learning outside of school to recognition inside it. I saw that firsthand with one of my sons, who was in a video editing and production specialty program in high school.
As a junior, he took the initiative to teach himself the ins and outs of iMovie to produce a highlight video of him playing lacrosse that he could send to college coaches. All the learning took place outside school on his own time.
He had to learn how to take a bunch of DVDs with hours of lacrosse footage and load them into iMovie. Then he had to edit the footage down to the best highlights, organize the clips into a video narrative that flowed naturally, strip the unnecessary audio, and produce a video that was less than five minutes long. Then he had to write emails to coaches promoting the video and often follow up with phone calls.
He was learning writing skills, video editing skills, and how to market himself. To this day, he says it was the most meaningful learning experience he had during high school.
But when he asked the school if he could spend time in class working on the project or get extra credit for it, the answer was no. He was told the school did not have the flexibility to allow that because it was not part of the official curriculum.
A perceived lack of opportunity to pursue what interests them inside school can lead some kids down a mischievous path.
That was the case for Jeremy Currier and Seth Stephens, who hacked into their Rochester Hills, Mich., school district network and got access to logins, passwords, phone numbers, locker combinations, lunch balances, and the grades of all 15,000 students in the school system, according to a story by Herold that triggered a lively debate on edweek.org about student discipline and the future of work.
Now the incident and the district’s decision to expel the boys, Herold writes, are raising a big question: How can schools develop the potential of kids with advanced computing skills and a tendency for probing boundaries—before things go in the wrong direction?
The answer might be by connecting those kids with meaningful learning opportunities outside of school.