South Dakota students prevent 11,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere

With funding from NOAA Planet Stewards, Spencer Cody, a teacher in Roscoe, South Dakota, challenged his students to learn about carbon’s role in our climate and reduce their carbon footprint along the way. But in the spring of 2020, Cody, like so many other educators, suddenly found himself navigating school closures and other challenges set off by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the 2020-2021 school year progressed, however, he and his students managed to find a creative solution that allowed them to not only meet, but also far exceed their carbon emission reduction targets.

Students take notes and weigh common household items, including plastic water bottles, soda cans, and soap dispensers.

Students in Spencer Cody's class weigh items they intend to recycle to calculate their impact on atmospheric carbon. This photo was taken in March 2020, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic took their NOAA Planet Stewards project in an unexpected direction. (Image credit: Spencer Cody)

At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, before the COVID-19 pandemic, Cody began by teaching his students about the carbon cycle. “Without understanding the carbon cycle, it is difficult for students to visualize their personal impact in relation to their carbon footprint,” he says. They even tested their skills at building and monitoring miniature terrestrial and aquatic environments in sealed containers to see how long they could maintain stable temperatures and levels of carbon dioxide, oxygen, and dissolved ions. 

Cody then challenged his students to make a difference in carbon emissions. He set an ambitious target for his students, challenging them to reduce carbon emissions by 1,398 kilograms of carbon dioxide, three times what his school was able to prevent during a previous NOAA Planet Stewards grant. He encouraged students to take concrete stewardship actions, choosing to change one activity in order to reduce emissions, one item to reuse, and ten items from their home to target with their recycling efforts. Students would use carbon calculators to relate these everyday activities to carbon emissions. 

“Everything went according to plan until March 2020,” reported Cody. In order to recycle, the students had been organizing transportation for materials to the nearest recycling center in a nearby town. As the pandemic progressed, the center eventually closed its doors. And with in-person school closed, Cody was forced to suspend all of the stewardship actions components of the project for the rest of the school year.

However, the fall of 2020 brought a fresh start. Cody led his students, now back in person, through the carbon cycle and sealed container experiments and resumed his carbon emissions reduction challenge. With the recycling center still closed, they even managed to find a strategy that allowed them to not only meet, but surpass their carbon emissions reduction target.

The answer was to recycle scrap metal. Scrap metal was something that many students found around their properties, and it could be recycled at a different facility nearby. “Recycling scrap aluminum, iron, and copper quickly exceeded our goal even after deducting fuel for transporting,” said Cody. “The students were amazed that their shelterbelt [a row of trees or shrubs that acts as a windbreak for an agriculture field] filled with junk was actually worth something and was a key strategy toward saving our planet.” 

The project wrapped up in 2021 with the following tally: 1,322 kilograms of carbon dioxide were prevented from entering the atmosphere through reducing measures, 755 kilograms through reusing, and 9,230 kg through recycling. Their grand total — 11,307 kilograms of carbon dioxide — is equivalent to what a car would produce driving 28,000 miles, which is more than the circumference of the Earth!