Gunn’s Green Team spreads environmental awareness one act at a time


Angela Wong, News Editor

Founded in 2006 by former science teacher and Student Activities coordinator Nik Kaestner, Gunn’s Green Team has attracted students, teachers, staff and community members alike to make Palo Alto a cleaner, more eco-friendly place. Today, about 13 years later, the team is a much smaller group solely comprised of students, but their overall goal to promote local environmental awareness remains the same.

The History of America’s Green Teams

In the mid 2000s, the popularity of Green Teams across the country had soared, especially within large-scale corporations like PayPal and Yahoo. Their teams served as corporate embodiments of their eco-friendly ideals, which then sent a message to the public that change was needed in the near future.

Around the same time, Palo Alto formed its own small community of eco-friendly citizens, as science teacher and Green Team advisor Eric Ledgerwood recalls. “We had a true Green Team for the whole school that involved everybody, including the principal, assistant principals, guidance counselors, community members, students and teachers. It was just a very good broad representation from all the different departments on campus,” he said. “Then, that sort of faded, and we’ve just had a very low number of motivated students.”

Today’s Green Team

While the club’s composition and environmental work has shifted over time, Ledgerwood agrees that there are benefits to having a smaller, passionate group of students. “The team has evolved to be a function of the people who are here at the time and what their interests are. Some years we focus on energy reduction, some on waste disposal and others on just sustainable things of one kind or another,” he said. “Either way, it’s always something that’s environmentally or sustainability motivated.”

Besides supervising their meetings, Ledgerwood’s main role in the team’s work is to serve as an inspiration for ideas and opportunities.

Their Weekly Meetings

The team meets every Thursday during lunch in science classroom J-3. While the club’s meetings sometimes focus on planning environment-related events around campus, they incorporate a fair share of science lessons, too. There’s a different lesson every week, Green Team President junior Swati Goel explains, where different students take turns speaking to their peers. Other weeks, Palo Alto environmentalists will visit and describe the work they do around the city. Leading up to special events, like Earth Day, these meetings are reserved for planning and expanding their current outreach programs and curriculums.

While Goel herself gives the majority of the lunchtime lectures, both she and Ledgerwood encourage other members to share their own learning experiences and their environmental opinions. “We’ll have student guest lecturers, like when a student just did a big thing on paper towels and waste. So they’ll research it more and give us a presentation at lunchtime on that. It’s really fun to see,” Ledgerwood said. “But on occasion, there’ll be an interest for me to guest lecture about something, and I’m happy to do that.”

For junior Kyle Matthys, who joined the team this year and will become treasurer in the fall, these lunchtime meetings made him realize how hard it is to organize an student-led event. “Before, I was very confident that we can just put out some flyers and create a movement very easily,” Matthys said. “And while it’s still possible to [inspire these movements], the actual difficulty and time that needs to go into it is very challenging, especially at Gunn.”

No matter how the club spends their 30 minutes, Ledgerwood believes that the students maximize their time together due to a shared interest in environmental issues. “The Green Team is a catalyst for students to speak out about things that they’re passionate about, in regards to sustainability and environmentalism. So, it’s a really nice opportunity for them to go and do different things,” he said. “It’s a great way to meet friends and do more things that are environmentally responsible.”

Gunn’s Environmental Science Curriculum

While not every member is not currently enrolled in AP Environmental Science (APES), everyone who joins is passionate about the planet around them. “Since I started teaching APES in 2010, I think it was then where I had brought more students to the team,” Ledgerwood said. “I have a decent amount of my AP students [on the team]. I’d say [they make up] about 25 to 30 percent of the team.”

Though APES and other opportunities for learning about the environment are available, Goel wishes environmental awareness would become integrated into high schoolers’ curriculum. “[Taking APES] is a very self-selecting thing. Like, you’re going to already have been interested in the environment,” Goel said. “We have living skills, social studies classes and [Social and Emotional Literacy and Functionality] (SELF), which everyone takes as freshmen and sophomores. I think it’s a shame that we’re not utilizing that to teach kids about environmental issues. There’s a lot that people really need to know about the world around them before graduating from high school. Environmental issues is one of those things.”

On the other hand, Matthys believes that schools should not be obligated to “convince” students to take more interest in the environment and climate change. “It’s not really a worry of the Green Team to convince people or force them to change their opinions [about their role in protecting the environment],” Matthys said.

America’s Food Waste Problem: A Green Team Priority

This year, the Green Team has been determined in reducing the amount of waste that comes from daily school lunch and in food waste at home. The United States Department of Agriculture reported that nearly 40 percent of food is lost or tossed. Globally, wasted food generates eight percent of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. K-12 schools across the country waste $1.2 billion worth of wasted food each year.

To tackle this issue, the Green Team tried to limit the usage of plastic utensils at Gunn. For the last few years, they have worked on single-use plastic reduction as a part of an outreach that APES and Marine Biology classes have done with the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Nonetheless, Goel admits that, to truly reduce the amount of plastic in the environment, every student must take larger measures in their own lives. “As a high schooler, you probably have more control over what your parents are buying, especially if you’re an upperclassman, and you might be doing the groceries,” Goel said. “Try to make sure that you’re wasting less food, and also take shorter showers, don’t litter and try to buy as little single use plastic as you can.”

Additional School-Based Work

One key event that took place at school was the annual Trashion Fashion show on Apr. 22. Green Team members stayed after school to prepare for the event on the senior quad by building various costumes. “The show was to raise awareness and just see how much trash is actually produced at Gunn in an intriguing way,” Matthys said. “We had a lot of interesting statements said, but it’s unclear whether that has really helped or not.”

Their Community Work

The Green Team is not restricted to spreading environmental awareness solely at Gunn. This past school year, the team also has organized and participated in a myriad of events focused on promoting an eco-friendly culture in the community. On the weekends, the team has done beach cleanups along the coast. They’ve also paired up with YMCA to teach kids about the environment during their kids club, as well as a Morocco cultural exchange alongside local non-profit organizations.

Lately, they have also made attempts to informing younger groups of their cause. Over the past year, they have organized elementary and middle school mini-lessons and cleanups around Palo Alto. “We’ve been going to [Herbert] Hoover [Elementary School] and their fourth and fifth grade classrooms. We teach them about the environment and their impacts on it,” Goel said. “I remember how I used to sort of hero-worship the kids who are older than me. So, our goal was if we can try and make this something fun and cool, but also impress upon the kids, that’s really important, and they can make a change.”

Visiting local elementary and middle schools, as Goel mentioned, may indeed inspire a substantial amount of interest for the environment among the younger generation. “I loved how willing they were to engage on some of these issues. They asked a lot of questions and really want to know what’s happening,” Goel said. “I don’t think high schoolers are different, but we just stop teaching them about [the environment].

What High Schoolers Can Do

While the Green Team is currently comprised of a small portion of the school, every student at Gunn should be responsible for maintaining the campus’ clean state. “If you see trash on the ground, pick it up. Especially if it’s just a piece of plastic, it’s not going to hurt you,” Goel said. “I know people usually say that it was someone else’s trash so they shouldn’t have to pick it up, but you live on this planet, and you go to this school.”

According to recent assessments, humans are said to have until 2030 to make strong environmental differences before they’re headed on a pathway that’ll make living on this planet tough for humans. Due to these reports, Ledgerwood urges that leading eco-friendlier lifestyles is essential for everyone. “Eat 30 percent less meat, drive an electric vehicle and stop consuming so much stuff,” Ledgerwood said. “Tackle consumption and consumerism on the deepest level you can. That’s something we can all do. [Meat reduction] is not something unattainable for most people.”

For there to be a substantial amount of change in our environmentally harmful ways, Matthys suggests that students begin to normalize healthier lifestyle choices. “There are very easy ways to reduce emissions. Turning down your shower temperatures actually turns down the temperature of the water heaters, which some people don’t know,” Matthys said. “It’s just these tiny changes that don’t really affect you but save a lot of money.”

The Climate Change Crisis

Goel agrees that there is a sense of environmental apathy among many students. “I earnestly believe that there’s like an alien spaceship overhead, and everybody’s just going about their daily lives. The environment today is in a crisis, and people need to better understand that, and they need to understand the impact that they can have throughout their life.”

Members also credit this sense of apathy to widespread ignorance surrounding current climate change. For Goel, she believes that labeling climate change as a political issue, and a divisive one at that, overlooks the actual environmental damage that’s occurring. “Look at the data. It’s a near scientific fact that it’s happening, and there’s a lot more going on besides just climate change. Part of it is climate change, but there’s also resource depletion. There’s only so much stuff on Earth, and we’re using it really fast,” Goel said. “The most important thing is for people to understand what some of the biggest threats facing the planet are, to try to at least not actively contribute to them but also to vote in such a way that reflects the importance of those issues.”

In regards to the skepticism surrounding climate change, Matthys believes that its negative aspects lead to negative reactions. “It’s very hard to change someone’s opinion,” Matthys said. “It’s hard to believe something that negatively affects you. But it’s easy to say climate change doesn’t exist and to just stick with that, but to challenge your own ideas and look it up is something I recommend people do.”

Moving Forward

Next fall, Matthys will become the team’s treasurer, which in itself does not entail specific responsibilities, Nonetheless, one of his own goals in his new position is to gain funding for the Green Team. “School protests can affect the actual income of schools, as they make money from kids attending school,” Matthys said. “So if we start protests in the morning instead, we could force the school to realize that they’re losing money and have to change.”

The Green Team is open for any and all students, regardless of their previous experience in helping the environment. “The team is just a great outlet for anyone who wants to do a little more than just sit back and watch the world do its own thing,” Ledgerwood said. “The students who have come in and been active have really done a great job of making a difference in their community.”

Ledgerwood adds on to the benefits of student-led awareness and activist groups. “It’s just a great away for students to have a more powerful voice,” Ledgerwood said. “Sometimes you feel something individually, but when you get into a group that does something, it’s like echoing your enthusiasm.”

Ultimately, Goel agrees that widespread, normalized change in the environment will happen as a result of education on such matters. “[The environment] doesn’t get much press, but there’s actually been a lot of environmental change that’s happened under the Drumpf administration that people don’t know about,” Goel said. “Especially in high school, you’ll be able to vote about these issues soon and make political decisions regarding them.”

The Green Team held their last meeting in mid-May. As the school year comes to an end, its members reflect on their growth as eco-friendly citizens. During both their weekly meetings and off-campus events, Matthys agrees that the student-led group has formed a special bond over the years through collective environmental interest. “The people who are on the team are courageous and strong-willed,” Matthys said. “They are actually determined to make change and definitely believe in it.”