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We Rise! Highlights from EcoRise’s 2018 Student Innovation Showcases

For those lucky enough to connect with EcoRise students at a Student Innovation Showcase this spring, one thing was abundantly clear: Our future is bright! In the spring of 2018, EcoRise hosted not one, not two, but three regional events to showcase Eco-Audit grant-funded projects in San Antonio; Austin; and Washington, D.C. The showcases featured a total of 37 student teams and attracted more than 550 attendees who were amazed by the students’ professionalism and understanding of complex environmental concepts, as well as the rich array of innovative student ideas. At each event, the excitement of the student presenters was contagious as they enthusiastically and clearly articulated the concepts behind their work and the positive impact their projects are having in their school communities.


On May 1—under the large dome of the Confluence Park pavilion—17 student teams from 12 San Antonio-area schools gathered to present their sustainability projects to the public at the second annual Student Sustainability Showcase, which was co-hosted with the National Wildlife Federation. EcoRise teams presented their green ideas to parents, school administrators, local community members, and program sponsors. Their innovations included a rainwater collection system, an outdoor classroom, and a campaign by high school students to teach local elementary school students about their carbon footprint.

Students from Nimitz Middle School present their project.

In addition to creating a butterfly garden and aquaponics system, students from Nimitz Middle School in the North East Independent School District wanted to conserve water but still be able to support their vegetable garden. The students explained to showcase guests how they measured the amount of water that they could collect from the gutters at their school and then determined that rain barrels would be a good solution for irrigating their plants and saving water.

Throughout the evening, Kelley Phillips, Director of Programs and Outreach for the San Antonio River Foundation, and several San Antonio Master Naturalist volunteers provided nature tours to student groups and parents in attendance.

The San Antonio event was made possible through key partnerships with the San Antonio River Foundation, which donated the space; the City of San Antonio, which provided grant funding for student projects; as well as North East Independent School District, Rackspace, and H-E-B, which each provided support for curriculum access, professional development, and year-round support for San Antonio K–12 teachers.

“I like that we got to have a real-life experience
that can actually help us make a difference in
our community.”

—San Antonio student


San Antonio showcase students enjoying Confluence Park.

“The Case of Carbon” team from Denise Ortiz’s class at New Braunfels High School presenting at Confluence Park.


Hours before the fourth annual Austin Student Showcase officially started, the Austin City Hall atrium was buzzing with energy. Twenty student teams from 12 Austin-area schools were getting ready to present their work. The crowd continued to grow to more than 350 people as family members, classmates, community members, and teachers came to show their support. The tables overflowed with projects that spanned six eco-themes—water, waste, food, public spaces, air, and transportation—overseen by students of all ages, from kindergarteners to high school seniors.

As the atrium filled to capacity, the students excitedly presented their ideas in person to Austin Mayor Steve Adler. Onlookers enthusiastically watched the mayor give his full attention to the kindergarten students from Brooke Elementary as they explained their aquaponics project to him with great detail and confidence. The students used Eco-Audit grant funds to grow lettuce to supply the cafeteria salad bar year-round. Later, on social media, Adler shared a photo of himself talking with a student. The caption read: “One of these people is explaining aquaponics in very simple terms. The other is your Mayor. The future is female.”

During the event, EcoRise staff presented the annual Teacher of the Year award to Ana “Gabi” Garcia of Akins High School for her success in planning and preparing a six-week long problem-based learning unit that combined EcoRise’s Sustainable Intelligence and Biomimicry Design Challenge curricula. Garcia’s program not only promoted eco-literacy, but also enhanced the research and 21st-century skills of her seniors to prepare them for their college and career goals. With this program, Ms. Garcia gave her students a strong and memorable finish to their high school careers and contributed to the Akins “Green School” legacy.

Ana “Gabi” Garcia of Akins High School accepting her Teacher of the Year award.

EcoRise Legacy Teacher, Thora O’Neil Gray (bottom right) with Austin Discovery School students.

From Austin Discovery School, Thora O’Neil Gray, who has been an EcoRise teacher for five years, was awarded the EcoRise Legacy Award for her continued dedication to sustainability education, community improvement, and inspiring the next generation. Leading over 400 elementary students through her eco-wellness course in a single year, O’Neil Gray is effectively creating a deeply embedded culture of eco-literacy, student ownership, innovation, and community collaboration.

A special thank you to Mayor Adler, Lucia Athens, Mary Priddy, and the entire City of Austin Office of Sustainability for co-hosting the event and for providing funding for student sustainability projects. The Austin Student Showcase was also made possible through partnerships with Austin ISD, Leander ISD, Rackspace, and H-E-B. Thank you to all who made this such a special event!

Austin City Hall atrium during project presentations.


Excited students weaved through the beautiful fifth-story U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) office in downtown Washington, D.C, as they toured the Platinum LEED-certified building. Then they presented their sustainable solutions to a room packed with over 150 people at the inaugural D.C. Student Innovation Showcase. Nine student teams from D.C. Public Schools (Lafayette, Seaton, and C.W. Harris elementary schools, and Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School) and Fairfax County Public Schools (Centreville Elementary and Lake Anne Elementary) presented their green ideas.

Seniors from Phelps ACE High School presenting their water-filtration project to third-graders from Lafayette Elementary.

The students were passionate and professional while presenting and they enjoyed visiting one another’s project presentations to learn what student teams from other schools were up to. EcoRise Teacher Ambassador and EPA Presidential Innovation Award-winner, Mary Ann Settlemyre of Centreville Elementary brought a team of students to present their cafeteria recycling campaign. She observed, “The energy in the room was so amazing. Students were proud to share what they had learned—how they were solving the problem and learning from each other. It’s what makes me so glad that I am a teacher!”

Third-grade students from Lafayette Elementary were especially interested in talking to the high school students from Phelps about their water filtration design. Other projects included a classroom greenhouse, reusable utensils for the cafeteria, reusable water bottles, recycling and composting initiatives, a garden restoration, and a food-waste reduction program.

EcoRise is grateful to the Center for Green Schools at the USGBC for hosting the event, and to the EPA, D.C. Public Schools, Fairfax County Public Schools, and the Office of the State Superintendent for Education for providing support to fund student projects, train and support K–12 teachers, and help us launch a successful first showcase!

It was inspiring to see the excitement and professionalism that
students brought to the showcase. Kids can’t care about a
topic they don’t know about; project-based learning
allows students to take learning into their own
hands and internalize it for a lifetime.”

–Sally Parker, Energy and Sustainability Liaison, D.C. Public Schools


I was moved to tears by the poise and purpose that my
scholars demonstrated while presenting their project at the EcoRise
showcase, leaving me with hope for future generations.

—Kendra Heffelbower, STEM Specialist, C.W. Harris Elementary,
D.C. Public Schools


C.W. Harris Elementary School students presenting their school-improvement projects.

Washington, D.C. Student Innovation Showcase during project presentations.

EcoRise still has free program subscriptions available for teachers in select regions: San Antonio, Houston, Louisiana, and New York City! So if you know an educator who would appreciate free lessons, professional development, and micro-grants for student innovations, send them to today. Together, #WeRise!

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