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Students use Halloween as climate lesson

Ashland High School biology teacher Jim Hartman is using Halloween as a way to get students to think about climate change and sustainability — so climate doesn’t become the horror many fear.

Over the weekend, Hartman roped AHS Honors Society Club members into carving pumpkins at the high school commons, a fun event, but also instructional, as they are repurposing and recycling everything, handing out cool pumpkins to all classrooms, sending piles of pumpkin seeds to the cafeteria to be baked in snacks that can be sold to students as a club fundraiser — and then, after Halloween, will send pumpkins to be composted for the school garden.

The students are even repurposing streamers, posters and scrap paper from earlier events, such as the Pride Parade, says junior Egrianna Newman. “We really wanted to do something to make Halloween good for the environment.”

AHS art teacher Max Malcomb, overseeing the pumpkin carving, notes it’s difficult to avoid using plastic in most everything we do, so instead of buying snacks for the carving party, students pot-lucked, making and bringing edibles from home.

“I brought pies that I made at home,” said senior and Honor Society Club co-president Sierrah Kelly. “Everything is environmentally friendly with as little plastic as we can find.”

Millions of pumpkins nationally are bought at markets and later trucked to landfills (using more energy) to decompose, but these at AHS were rejects donated by Shop’n Kart and Safeway — and the school Climate Action Club will see they are added back into the soil, making it more productive of food served in the cafeteria, says Malcomb.

“Halloween is a big generator of trash and garbage, so our goal is to minimize that,” said Indigo Pinder Magana, Honor Society Club co-president.

“We’re doing this carving party to inspire sustainability and not trashing things, and we’re raffling off Micron pen sets also, as we inspire other people to help,” said Logan Knouse, club secretary-treasurer.

Hartman, whose climate change class spearheaded the campaign to get Ashland City Council to adopt its Climate Energy & Action Plan, said he’s encouraging students to attempt carvings of climate horrors, such as hurricanes and massive wildfires, then “after that I don’t see us having the energy to capture squash from the waste stream.”

Halloween whips up feelings of fear — and Hartman says his students already have fear and anger around what’s happening to the climate, so he tries to teach them how to handle such feelings with action instead of helplessness.

“Carving pumpkins is a way to do this. When we feel anger (about the planet), it means we’re not getting our needs met, so we need to communicate our needs to others, especially those with the power to change things for the better. So carving pumpkins can be joyous and should be.

“It’s not all doom and gloom. We’re working on solutions here in class,” said Hartman, pointing to a bioreactor, which he calls a Fungal Climate Victory Garden. In a three-foot glass tank, it has compost and soil with a fungal mat on top. Its job is to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and turn it into lignite or soft brown coal, which is two-thirds carbon.

If done on a large scale, 5,000 acres of it could theoretically offset all of Ashland’s carbon output, Hartman says, but research by the class is just beginning and it remains to be seen.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Andy Atkinson / Ashland Tidings Ashland High School students work on carving pumpkins Sunday on campus.
Andy Atkinson / Ashland Tidings Ashland High School students work on carving pumpkins Sunday on campus.