Kid Superheroes: Saving the Planet, One Environmental Issue at a Time!

By: Lauren Miller, Jackie Jaffe, and Jenna Hartley

Photo: Hank Carter

July 2021

Superheroes are all around us, but they aren’t wearing capes or running at super speed. Instead, they’re passionate kids, using their voices and demanding to be heard, especially when it comes to sparking environmental change. This Clean Beaches Week (July 1-7), we’re sharing examples of how kids are making a difference in their communities (and beyond) as evidenced through research by Dr. Nancy Foster Scholar, Jenna Hartley.

All over the world, youth are making a difference in impacting adult attitudes and improving the environment. In Thailand, after learning about forest degradation in their classes, students created change through organizing tree plantings and speaking up against forest burning. Within the United States, the NOAA Ocean Guardian School Program has empowered students to push for environmental policy change. Through this program, Adams Elementary students advocated for the “Skip the Straw” campaign at a Santa Barbara City Council Meeting. In turn, council members were so moved that they enacted a plastic straw ban.

These noteworthy kids demonstrate the power of intergenerational learning (IGL), the bi-directional transfer of knowledge across generations. IGL has the potential to initiate a chain reaction in which youth learn about environmental issues from their teachers and can then spread this knowledge to their peers and adults, both within and beyond the family unit. Through this process, people of all ages can work together to tackle environmental issues.

Okay, we see that youth can teach adults about environmental issues, but how much of an impact do they really make?

NOAA Dr. Nancy Foster Scholar, Jenna Hartley has set out to answer this question. As a former classroom teacher and environmental education specialist, Jenna believes deeply in the power of young people in creating environmental and community solutions. Jenna also recently served a two-year term in the Education Seat on the Sanctuary Advisory Council for Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, working alongside site staff to consider innovative approaches to marine science education. Jenna is currently completing her PhD research at North Carolina State University under the advisorship of environmental education researcher Dr. Kathryn Stevenson. Jenna's research examines the role of students as environmental change-agents in their communities, specifically on the topic of marine debris and plastic pollution.

students gather at a town hall meeting
Fourth and fifth grade students attended a Fuquay-Varina Town Hall meeting with the mayor and Board of Commissioners after presenting on the topic of marine debris. Photo courtesy of Jenna Hartley

Stemming from this research, Hartley and her colleagues recently conducted a study that found a quantitative increase in adults’ levels of concern about marine debris and support for a marine debris ordinance following youth presentations. Hartley and her research team discovered that young people were able to bring together typically-polarized political identities, through both in-person events and virtual outreach methods such as youth-led public service announcement (PSA) videos. “These findings are really encouraging, especially for kids to know that they have power,” said Hartley. Even educators and parents should understand that kids can have a really important voice in their communities.”

By speaking up and sharing their opinions and behaviors with adults, students are able to affect environmental policy. As the mayor of Fuquay-Varina, John Byrne, said after hearing one of the youth presentations at a Town Hall meeting, “We've got to use things sensibly. It's deeper than just plastics. 'Where do we want our world to be 50 years from now?' ... We learned a lesson today from our young people.”

It takes a village. Let’s find out how YOU fit into this superhero narrative!

Students: Activate your kid powers today by learning as much as you can about the environment and sharing your knowledge proudly with the world! Some fun ways to initiate change in your community include making PSA videos, giving formal presentations to adults in political venues (i.e., your town or City Hall meetings), or even just having conversations about marine debris at the dinner table. Beach clean-ups are also a great way to get your community actively involved in making a difference. If you don’t live near the beach, you can clean up trash around any local waterway!

Teachers: Kid powers can’t come to life without your help! Support students and amplify their voices by helping them craft PSA videos in class, hosting poetry nights, or organizing any other event that helps students reach adults. Be creative and implement engaging elements that target your students’ interests. To use the activities used in this study, see the free marine debris curriculum developed by the Duke University Marine Lab.

One fifth grade teacher, Crystal Holland, added some friendly competition to a cleanup event to get her students engaged. “We did our river clean-up and had a blast. I made it a contest between our two fifth grade classes and I couldn't believe what they found,” said Holland.

The clean-up took place right by their school, and students and teachers alike were amazed by the plethora of debris collected. Ms. Holland’s river clean-up shows that you don’t need to travel far to make an event meaningful. Change can be made just around the corner, and that’s exactly where it should start.

a child picking up trash on a beach
A student from Wrightsville Beach School helps out at a beach clean-up. Photo courtesy of Jenna Hartley.
two children picking up trash together
Two students from Isaac Dickson Elementary School take part in an outdoor clean-up. Photo courtesy of Jenna Hartley

Parents and Community Members: Empower the kids of your community by listening. Their superhero voices can speak only as loud as you’re willing to hear. Be open to conversations that challenge your own thinking, and spread what you learn to others.

Looking for programs to get you started?

There are several NOAA programs related to youth engagement with environmental science and policy. Here are three to consider:

  • Ocean Guardian School Program - Ocean Guardian schools commit to the conservation of local watersheds, the world’s ocean, and special ocean areas, like national marine sanctuaries. Students can partake in critical learning projects and opportunities related to sustainability and conservation.

  • Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) Programs - K-12 educators and students can gain an authentic experiential learning experience through meaningful watershed educational experiences.

  • Marine Debris Program - Citizens can receive funding for their marine debris projects, and projects can focus on marine debris removal, prevention, and research.

There’s no need to fear, the superhero kids are here!

Environmental issues such as marine debris present ongoing challenges, but with a little help from adults, superhero kids can save the day. To learn more about Hartley’s study and how kids had a positive impact in their local communities, read the article published in Frontiers in Political Science.

Lauren Miller and Jackie Jaffe are students at Duke University and are DukeEngage interns for the Duke University Marine Lab Community Science Initiative. Jenna Hartley is a PhD Candidate at North Carolina State University and a NOAA Dr. Nancy Foster Scholar.