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Four High School Students Champion Sustainability Impact

Four CHCCS students with technology expertise and a passion for environmental education, service-learning and community-building have been busy for months, creating projects, a contest and a soon-to-be released app called EcoEye. They are enterprising and innovative, and in April they were among 35 students nationally who won a Presidential Environmental Youth Award (PEYA) for their impact as the Go Green team.

Rising juniors Savannah Xu, her brother Ayden Xu, and freshman Yichen Sun are all students at Chapel Hill High School (CHHS). In 2019, they joined forces with Bo Chi, a rising sophomore at East Chapel Hill High School (ECHHS) to form Go Green, a core of sustainability activists and designers. The four students have been friends for a long time.

Despite being chosen from thousands of applicants for the EPA award, they are quick to deflect or share the limelight. “We feel that our team story is not about any ‘achievement,’ but about the personal growth, inspirations and positive impact from actively participating in service learning and teamwork,” said Savannah Xu.

Their environmental projects have been launched using the volunteer support and publicity provided by We Sense, a local 501c3 nonprofit volunteer organization based in Chapel Hill. “In the past two years, we participated in various environmental awareness programs hosted by We Sense,” said Savannah Xu. “This helped us gain experience and interest leading to the creation of our Go Green projects. Go Green - Holiday Action won us the 2019 PEYA award.”

Go Green community project “We didn’t start out as a structured group. Working together on various projects in the past naturally brought us together as a team,” said Savannah Xu. “We first started working together on an e-cycling awareness program with other students in 2018. After several projects in collaboration with other students, the four of us started Go Green as our first structured team project.” Their resume already looks like it belongs to a team of college students and not underclassmen in high school.

Their first independent community-wide project, “Go Green - Holiday Action,” targeted the problem of limited public knowledge about recycling. The team’s goal was to spread awareness and promote realistic solutions through a series of holiday-themed events, using technology and hands-on activities. This single, seasonal project impacted more than 700 participants with entertaining curbside recycling quizzes and the use of more than 100 pounds of recycled materials in artistic exhibits and crafts. The activities provided an engaging response to the dilemma of increased recyclable waste generated during the holidays. 

As an additional educational recycling resource, they created an app, EcoEye, which utilizes AI-Vision to classify various wastes and their recyclability. Although the app is not yet live, the team has used it at Go Green events and plans to publish it to the app store in the near future. Savannah Xu said, “The app is fully functional, but we still need to do some minor debugging before we make it accessible to everyone.”

“From brief interactions with residents of Chapel Hill, I found that most people are avid supporters of environmental sustainability, but aren’t quite sure of things they can do to help,” Xu said. “This is why we worked to find a way to make things more convenient through our app EcoEye, which helps people properly classify waste. Though this may seem minuscule, it is a crucial step to help the environment, given that 28 billion bottles and jars are thrown away every year instead of being properly recycled.”

“In the process of making the EcoEye app, I also developed a passion for environmental stewardship and sustainability. Go Green allowed me to collaborate with wonderful teammates with different skill sets to accomplish things that I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own,” said Ayden Xu. EcoEye app by Go Green

The Xu siblings and Sun all took AP Computer Science Principles at CHHS this year with CTE teacher, Garrison Reid. The course focuses on data analysis, data visualization, and programming with the Python language. “Throughout the course, they've each shown an interest in applying their programming skills in impactful, real-world scenarios,” Reid said. "’Global Impact’ is one of the course's Big Ideas  addressed throughout the coursework.”

G. Reid with Go Green students “Even though the projects are not directly tied into a school club or class, we received a lot of support from our teachers,” Savannah Xu said. “We learned many important technical and programming skills from our teacher, Mr. Garrison Reid. Mr. Reid also provided us with valuable feedback during the EcoEye app development and opportunities to showcase it such as introducing us to competitions.”

“The vast majority of the team's success has been due to their commitment and focus on the app's greater purpose. I am excited for what they will accomplish as they further develop their programming abilities,” Reid said. “I am also encouraged that they've worked with students from other campuses. I hope this offers some ongoing collaboration between computer programming programs across the district.”

Bo Chi is the only team member from ECHHS; he completed Introduction to Engineering Design this year. “Go Green is a wonderful service + learning challenge,” said Chi. “I learned a great deal from putting together the program activities with the team, and the outreach and in-person interactions further broadened my experiences, made my learning meaningful and deepened my passion for more community service around environmental issues.”

“Go Green has really helped me improve myself in many ways,” CHHS student, Sun, said. “I have gotten a lot better at working on a team, making educational content fun, and teaching others. I have also learned a lot myself about sustainability and environmental issues through this project. Through community service, I have helped myself and others better understand recycling and sustainability.”

When their award was announced in an Earth Day press release, the Go Green team shared this statement. “Small choices make big impacts. Let us all make positive changes in everyday life and turn each day into an Earth day.”

The students’ most recent community-oriented project is Creativity in Bloom, a contest moved online after the pandemic began. Advertised as “green projects,” the entries were required to use at least 60% of materials from recycled waste and sustainable practices, and they include entries like a hydraulic powered robotic arm, a bamboo waterwheel and an automatic composting system with distributed moisturization. Voting online continues through Monday, June 15, so take a look at the entries and cast your vote!

“We are very excited about our summer project - STEM with ME!” said Savannah Wu. “This project promotes STEM learning with ME components - ME stands for Mindfulness of the Environment. The project will be announced soon after we wrap up the Creativity In Bloom.”