THE FWSU STORY: Students Speak Out on Solving Environmental Waste with Design Thinking

On today’s FWSU STORY, students in the “Solving With Design Thinking” class at GEMS use their voice to share solutions to a common environmental waste problem.  

Students investigating the parts of a k-cup.

Students investigating the parts of a k-cup.

Billions and billions of disposable coffee pods known as k-cups are tossed into garbage cans each year. This year’s Solving Problems With Design Thinking class at Georgia Elementary Middle School identified the problem and designed a solution.

K-Cups are a common, everyday item contributing to environmental waste.

K-Cups are a common, everyday item contributing to environmental waste.

Our solution was to find a way to separate the k-cups and direct each material to the best place to avoid waste.

In 3 weeks we collected nearly 400 k-cups.

  • Plastic cups mostly went  to the Art room sculpture center
  • 8 lbs. of coffee and filter paper were composted
  • A very small quantity of aluminum was recycled
  • No part of these k-cups entered the garbage

For three weeks we tested our solution at GEMS, made adjustments, and created an exhibit in the C-Building Lobby to share our work. The following is an FAQ about the project in the words of students from the class.

The problem solving process steps we use in the class.

The problem-solving process steps we use in the class.

Why are k-cups a problem at GEMS and in the world?

“They are a problem because you can’t recycle them easily so we took them apart to figure out how to use them.”

“They are  just a very big waste and you can only compost some of the parts.”

“They are not environment-friendly and can’t be recycled all together, causing waste.”

Students designed a tool for cleaning k-cups.

Students designed a tool for cleaning k-cups.

“The plastic cup part is not compostable or recyclable.”

“The K-cups are not recyclable after being used so they get thrown away. This is not safe for the environment. They are wasteful.”

How did you formulate a plan to solve the problem here at GEMS?

“We had a group brainstorm and we built things to make the process go faster.”

“We brainstormed a plan on what to do with each part of the k cups, and we formulated different tools to help us do so.”

“We made a system to take a k-cup apart to be used in other ways that is not the trash.”

“As a team, we decided to make a tool that helped when cleaning the K-cup. Two to three people would work in a group that would focus on K-cups in a different way.”

A k-cup light fixture. Really!

A k-cup light fixture. Really!

Was your solution effective? 

“Yes, it was effective, because we had a quite easy job cleaning the k-cups and creating different uses for them, and what we could do with each part of them. What we could not reuse was composted or recycled.”

“I think that it was very effective, and recycling the k-cups was fast and took minimal effort.”

“Yes, it was effective because we got 396 k-cups and we made a lot of crafts.”

“Yes. We came up with about 400 k cups, throughout three weeks of hard work and designing. We also made different things with them.”

Working as a team - cleaning out and separating k-cups.

Students collaborate and work as a team to clean out and separate k-cups.

Could the solution be used elsewhere? Could all k-cups be recycled? 

“Yes, if we could find a place that could combine the grounds into fertilizer and we could have the plastic melted into different objects, recycle the tin foil and the filters could be composted. This could save our landfills from overflowing with k cups and would help with keeping landfills in check by recycling.”

“I think that it could definitely be used elsewhere. If enough people were willing to participate, then they could be recycled.”

“Yes, but that would mean that everyone would have to lend a hand to the project to make boxes and also to collect dissemble and clean.”

“We found a way so that each part of the k cup could be used for something in a useful way.”

Separating a k-cup into its materials

Separating a k-cup into its materials

What have you learned from this project in terms of problem-solving, teamwork, or k-cup waste and recycling? 

“I learned that little things that we use in everyday lifestyle can have a big thing in waste problems.”

“When you work as a team, projects get done faster and more efficiently.”

Making a light up sphere out of k-cups!

Making a light up sphere out of k-cups!

“I have learned that people can solve most problems by putting their heads together and finding out a solution.”

“I learned that if we work as a team we can get many things accomplished.”

“I learned that you sometimes have to work with people you find annoying and k-cups are super wasteful.”

Our Exhibit in C-Building at GEMS.

Our Exhibit in C-Building at GEMS.

Today’s FWSU STORY first appeared on the GEMS Innovation Lab blog

THE FWSU STORY: BFA Fairfax Team Poutine Takes Second Place in UVM Aiken Maker Challenge

On Saturday, BFA Fairfax’s Robotics and Engineering Club, affectionately known as Team Poutine, participated in the 3rd Annual Aiken K-12 Maker Faire & Engineering Challenge (formerly known as the TASC challenge) at UVM, hosted by UVM’s College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.

BFA Fairfax Team Poutine at the third annual K-12 Maker Faire & Engineering Challenge.

BFA Fairfax Team Poutine at the third annual K-12 Maker Faire & Engineering Challenge.

So, what’s with the name? Last year, when we were rebooting the team, students proposed a variety of options for a fun, new name. Of all the options, Team Poutine came out on top, with The Narwhals coming in a close second. In fact, it was close enough that we worked out a compromise: we adopted the moniker, Team Poutine, as our official name, and the Narwhal as our mascot.


Team Poutine’s official mascot!

My wife is a whimsical artist, and quickly needle-felted a Narwhal mascot for the team, who attends the events with us, and loves to ride upon the contraptions the team creates. Of course, the Narwhal needed a name, and only one name fit the bill: Poutine the Narwhal.



But why Poutine? Isn’t poutine just greasy, cheesy fries? No. Poutine is innovation. Poutine is taking components that don’t necessarily seem like they would go together at first glance–cheese, gravy, french-fries–and trying it anyway. Poutine is creating something new and glorious by reconfiguring the mundane.

This year’s challenge was to design a launcher for ping pong balls that would be both accurate and flexible, in order to get the balls through a variety of targets, from rolling on the ground to flying through the air, to banking shots in from opposing angles.

The challenge.

The challenge.

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Creating something new by rethinking the mundane.

Each team randomly selected the targets they would have to work with at the start of each match by pulling tiles from a bag.  The team then had time to strategize regarding how to best place those targets for the match, before entering their set-up period.


The team at work!

Scored ping pong balls were worth different point values based on how far away from the launcher they were set up, and whether the target was an easy or a hard target. Further points would be awarded if a team got closer to balancing the number of balls scored through all of the targets.


The team works on the prototype of their design.

Teams from middle and high schools across Vermont participated in the challenge this year, with a wide range of innovative means of approaching the challenge, from pitching style machines, to catapults, to flick’em up contraptions and even an impromptu human-breath powered launcher in the finals when one of the other teams’ original designs malfunctioned.


Students at BFA Fairfax started working together to innovate, design, and create their contraption early this fall, as soon as the challenge rules were released. After a brainstorming session early on, we had a number of design ideas that students wanted to pursue. One of the very first ideas the team tried out was to use a catapult for the challenge.  Ultimately, though, after looking more closely at the challenge specifications and discussing the pro’s and con’s of the different possibilities further, the team landed on creating a pitching-machine inspired launcher, with a pair of powered wheels spinning in opposite directions to shoot the balls forward.

The design process.

The design process.

The initial prototype the students designed was created entirely from parts that we already had available from previous challenges the team had participated in. The team quickly discovered, however, that we had never faced a challenge like this one before. The motors that we had were all geared much more for torque than speed. You can see the first prototype in action (or inaction) here.


Tools are essential, but so is good communication throughout the design process.

After some research on YouTube and Amazon, the team was able to find some new motors within our budgetary constraints that were rated for +/- 18,000RPM, and a potentiometer to adjust and control the speed of their rotation. And of course, as Uncle Ben would tell Peter Parker, with great power comes great responsibility. With the new motors, the team quickly discovered that they needed a new way to attach them to the device, and perhaps just needed a new device altogether.  As team-member, Robbie Dearborn put it, “I learned that the materials you use can change the entire plan. Some materials give you more opportunities to build in different directions; to design and build the concept you really want to build.” So, back to the drawing board they went, and then it was time to break out the 3D printer, saws, and screwdrivers!


The design takes shape!

Team Poutine learned the value of good communication throughout the design process, and the competition as well. But the actual competition wasn’t the only component. The team also presented their engineering design story to a panel of judges, reflecting on the entire process from start to finish.

The team presents their design to the panel at the UVM Aiken Maker Challenge.

The team presents their design to the panel at the UVM Aiken Maker Challenge.

When all was said and done, Team Poutine had climbed the ranks to second place overall, out of roughly thirty teams from across the state, and brought home a fun, new robotics kit to put to use for future challenges! But that’s not all they brought home with them. Team Poutine brought home a renewed sense of pride in our school and a lot of great ideas and positive energy.

BFA's Team Poutine takes 2nd place!

BFA’s Team Poutine takes 2nd place!

And this morning, they were right back at it, switching gears and starting fresh to prepare for what’s next: the FIRST Tech Challenge in Essex this February! This team of student innovators cannot wait to move innovation forward.

Harold Vance III

Today’s guest post was contributed by Harold Vance III, the Flexible Learning Coordinator at BFA Fairfax. He tweets at @SensingPlace.

THE FWSU STORY: GEMS Inventors Share Reflections on Iteration in Prototypes and Designs

As the Prototyping and Inventing class winds down in the Georgia Elementary Middle School Innovation Lab, students are eager to share the great work they have been doing. You can read more about the class in this post

GEMS Innovation Lab

In the video below, a student talks about the concept of iterations in the inventing and design process. This foundational understanding is crucial to the class.

Another student discussed a breakthrough in 3D printing — a coin cell battery holder.

Enjoy this gallery with the latest iterations created by our student innovators!


Fun with circuits and lights!

Light-up Fingers

Light-up Fingers!

Cell Phone/iPod Holder

Cell Phone/iPod Holder

Proud Inventors!

Proud Inventors!

A work in progress.

A work in progress.

We might store our printing filament this way!

We might store our printing filament this way!




A student shows off a design prototype.



Student-designed marker holder.

The master list - How we organized our inventing sessions.

The master list – wow we organized our inventing sessions!

THE FWSU STORY: Community Partners Come Together to Provide Two-Day Wellness Learning Opportunity for FWSU Educators

This year FWSU held the second annual Professional Learning Institutes on November 20 and 21. Teachers, community partners, and consultants offered a range of 2-day institutes focused on professional learning reflective of both supervisory union and school-based goals that align with our 4 Vision-to-Action Targets: Proficiency-based Personalized Learning, Leadership, Flexible Learning Environments, and Engaged Community Partners. The following post describes just one of the 13 sessions FWSU educators could choose. Bonnie Poe, FWSU’s Prevention & Wellness Coordinator, facilitated the Institute.

Wellness Habits

Wellness Habits

FWSU teachers, nurses, and guidance counselors learned about a variety of tools and how to use them to build and support sustainable well-being for their students and themselves at one of FWSU’s 2-day professional learning institutes.


Wellness matters!

The Institute, Building a Sustainable Approach to Well-being in Schools for Teachers and Students, presented a variety of wellness practices. Not every tool and strategy presented during the 2 days was expected to be implemented by every participant; one size does not fit all — that is fine. Instead, the emphasis was placed on reflective practice: which tools did educators think would work for their classroom, individual students, and for themselves. To make this work, numerous community members and agencies share their wellness expertise with teachers through multiple presentations during November 20 – 21. After each presentation, participants were given time to reflect on why and how something they just learned about might be used with their students or themselves.


Jessica Frost, RiseVT

Jessica Frost, RiseVT Wellness Specialist, demonstrated how to use yoga in the classroom and shared how and when to use it as a calming tool to reduce stress and anxiety, helping students be more available to learn. She also gave each participant a yoga mat and yoga cards to use with students.


Nathan Wiles, master labyrinth architect

Nathan Wiles, a master labyrinth designer and builder, shared how walking a labyrinth takes practice, but over time can have a calming impact on those who choose to use it. He included numerous ideas and guidance on how and when to use the labyrinth with students. Teachers participated in walking an indoor labyrinth. One teacher shared, “I was halfway around the first circle and thought that this wasn’t working for me. However, I thought about how my students sometimes don’t want to try something. So, I reset how I was thinking and finished the labyrinth.” This session had particular meaning for GEMS participants. Last year, a team of Georgia Elementary and Middle School teachers was awarded an Innovation Grant provided by the Bay and Paul Foundation to construct a labyrinth in outdoor space at their school. 

Pam Easterday

Pam Easterday, Meditation Therapist

Pam Easterday, Meditation Therapist, gave a moving presentation entitled, “Finding the Inspiration Within Us,” which included breathing and meditation tools that can create both calm and awareness and allow the body’s own natural abilities to find balance, healing, and relaxation.

Rachael Gregory, VT Department of Health Nutritionist, addressed weight loss and fitness myths, along with suggestions for healthy snacks for both teachers and students.

Darrell Cole, a Chiropractor in Milton, provided useful advice on pain prevention and management by demonstrating techniques for being proactive in the way we sit with our electronic devices, as well as how we sleep–did you know sleeping on your stomach is the worst way to sleep? He included advice on the proper use of pillows when we sleep. And, if your backpack or purse weighs more than 5 pounds, not good!

Shannon Wright, Massage Therapist, provided massages to those that felt comfortable having massages–an important reminder that our ideas of wellness are very personal. Remember: One size does not fit all — and that’s okay!

New Blood Pressure Categories

Revised blood pressure guidelines published by the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association.

Merideth Plumpton, Vermont Department of Health Nurse emphasized the importance of adults seeing their doctors and dentists for recommended health visits and immunizations. She also shared the very recent blood pressure guidelines, which will surprise many people who thought they once had normal blood pressure.

The two-day Institute concluded with Samantha Thomas from Northwestern Counseling and Support Services providing connections between emotional and physical health and the importance of making those connections with and for each of our students and ourselves.

As planned, participants experienced new learning opportunities to develop tools to create an engaged, safe, supported, healthy, and academically resilient classroom. We are so grateful to our community partners who generously shared their expertise in building new habits, meditation, stress management, yoga, nutrition, and personal health and how their areas can be integrated into FWSU classroom routines.

Vermont Department of Health

Photo by Vermont Department of Health

Here is what participants had to say about their experiences:

  • “This was a great couple of days.  This was a really nice opportunity to think about the importance of mindfulness, health, and overall wellness!”
  • “I’ve so enjoyed learning new info that applies not just to my kids but also to me.”
  • “I found today to be very useful!”
  • “This was a very useful day.  I enjoyed hearing from different speakers, rather than just one.  It gave the day more variety.”
  • “The format of this session is so welcome at this time of year.  It is a stressful period for many between holidays and school obligations like conferences and report cards.”
  • “The variety:  We sat, we stood.  We listened and spoke.  I appreciated the diversity in presenters, too.  Finally, modeling reflection every turn of the way should make us self-aware.”
  • “I enjoyed walking the labyrinth.  The history of the labyrinth was interesting to learn.  I am interested in making/getting finger labyrinths for my students to use in the classroom.”
  •  “Loved practicality of Sam [Samantha Thomas].”

 And of course, everyone who had a massage loved it!

  •  “I really enjoyed Rise VT — we were involved and active — she had a lot of practical ideas that could be easily implemented into the classroom.  I loved the free goodies too.”
  •  “I loved learning about using yoga in the classroom.”
  •  “I really liked Rachael Gregory’s presentation and Jessica Frost.  All presentations that made me stop and think.”

THE FWSU STORY: Fletcher Students Wonder About Bullying and Empathy

Fourth through sixth-grade students in Fletcher viewed the film, Wonder, this morning at the Essex Cinemas. The film chronicles the experiences of Auggie, a brainy 10-year-old fifth grader who has multiple facial surgeries following a car accident.

Wonder Movie Poster

The boy experiences both teasing and empathy in this heartwarming story with an important message about tolerance and acceptance. Here, please take a moment to listen to three students talk about the film and their reactions.


THE FWSU STORY: Application Season at BFA

Throughout a student’s senior year, there are many milestones, deadlines, firsts and lasts. These all come with a mix of anxiety, excitement, and sadness for both the student and their families.


One major event students are currently engaged in is the college application process. Having been through the “application season”  as a teacher, principal, and parent, I feel like I understand the process and the excitement and stress that it creates. For those of you unfamiliar with the college application process, I hope to share my insights; for those of you currently in the mix, I hope to commiserate with you!

The college application process typically begins in a student’s junior year. Shortly after they take a national standardized test, like the PSAT, students start to receive mail (and email) from colleges. These marketing pieces provide a broad overview of the school and encourage students to visit and learn more about how the college might match their interests and personality. Students begin to develop a list of features they are looking for in a college (large or small, rural or urban,…) and a list of colleges that might fit their criteria.


In the spring of the junior year and during the summer before their senior year, students start to visit campuses. This provides the student with the chance to tour the campus, look at classrooms and dorms, meet other students and really get “a feel” for the school. In my experience as a parent, there were campuses that felt right immediately and some that we instantly knew were not going to work. Even if a campus wasn’t a good fit, there was always something to take from the tour-I liked their computer support, the semester abroad program was excellent,…-and look for on another campus. We visited small rural schools, large urban schools and a good range in between for campus tours and open houses.

As the campus tours wind down and the senior year begins, it’s time to make some decisions about the actual application process. When my daughter had narrowed down the list of schools to which she wanted to apply, we created a giant chart with the name of the school, it’s application date, the application cost, and a column to mark that the application was submitted.


At this point, the work falls to the student. They need to complete the application. Most schools use the Common App, so most of the information needs to fill in only one time. Students need to ask teachers for recommendations. This can be difficult for the student since they have to determine which teachers know them best and can provide the best reference connected to their intended major. From a teacher’s perspective, I always wanted to know as much information about the student’s plans and goals to be able to craft the best letter possible. Ideally, students provide teachers with adequate time and information to complete the task. Senior level math, science, and English teachers are in high demand, so the earlier they are asked, the more likely the letter will be done on the necessary timeline.


Students work with their English teachers on their college essay and with the guidance office on transcripts. The school counselors are also busy writing letters of recommendations, answering questions, and generally providing support and encouragement during this stressful time (for students and the counselors!).

Finally, when all the pieces of the application are ready comes the fateful moment when the student clicks “Submit” and puts the decision into the hands of a college admissions officer. And then we wait. Admission decisions start to come in mid-December, but several BFA students have heard from their colleges already (and been accepted!).

And of course, once the acceptance letters come in, it’s time to think about Financial Aid! But, we’ll save the FAFSA and loans and grants for another blog!