Beyond the beanstalk, teacher makes recycling graspable

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Proudly displaying signs showing what they have grown, two 9-year-olds, Anarie West, left, and Zuri Coles, center, sit with their teacher, Sean Taylor, in the garden at the Howe Library in Albany.

ALBANY COUNTY — When he teaches kids about recycling, Sean Taylor says, “I try to make the connection. It’s hard to see what you can do on a personal level.”

Taylor is the environmental youth educator at the Cornell Cooperative Extension for Albany County. He spends part of his time in the Voorheesville office and part of his time in the city of Albany where he lives.

Taylor likes to show kids how they can find solutions to problems.

One of the projects he has students do illustrates a very direct way to recycle. Nevermind the long process of taking soda bottles to the transfer station where they are placed in a bin, transported who knows where, and perhaps finally turned into a useful material.

Harnessing kids’ interest in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” Taylor has his students fashion soda bottles, along with sponges and string, into hanging planters. Then they use their creations to grow scarlet runner beans.

“It’s a different way to use plastic,” he says. “And, they get food from it.”

This summer, Taylor teamed up with an Eat Smart New York educator to teach the kids not just about urban gardening but also about nutritious eating.

During the school year, Taylor teaches students in kindergarten through 12th grade, both during school hours and in after-school programs.

He’s well-grounded in his teaching, with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from the University at Albany. He expects to complete a master’s degree in urban planning there this fall.

Taylor can see the big picture when asked to help describe the state’s ban on certain recyclable items. (See related story.) About plastic items on the list, he says, “Our system is dominated by oil. Everything is a derivative of the most-used resource.”

Producing plastic requires fossil-fuel-derived energy, and the carbon-dioxide released in the manufacturing process adds to the greenhouse effect that has caused climate change.

When Taylor instructs kids, he makes these concepts accessible. He stresses the importance of teaching geography. “It lets kids understand their place in the world,” he said. And it’s useful for teaching concepts like global warming, he said, as his students can see how what they do affects other parts of the world.

“Once they see all the negative impacts, they’re more willing to participate and engage,” he said.

One of his lessons, for example, is on bees. A decade ago, a huge number of honey-bee colonies collapsed and scientists have posited a number of ideas on the continuing causes.

“We show them one of the reasons they’re declining has to do with how we grow our food,” said Taylor. “We need these insects to pollinate.”

He tells his students how farmers sometimes “spray pesticides to kill bad bugs, which affects the bees.” One of the insecticides is neonicotinoid, chemically similar to nicotine. “It gets into the bees’ nervous system and they die,” said Taylor.

“I tie it into the fruits they love to eat. I show them what would happen if the bees die,” said Taylor.

He described a typical student reaction: “Wow, we should really do something about that.”

Taylor goes on, “After that, I give them pollinator seeds that help keep the bee population high.”

He hopes the seeds his students plant will grow.

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