Clarkson University, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and Canton Central Schools have teamed up to teach students about the environmental impacts of food waste and the science of anaerobic food digestion.
The project is led by Clarkson Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stefan Grimberg, and Associate Professor Jan DeWaters. Students at Hugh C. Williams High School and JM McKenney Middle School place their food scraps in collection bins, which are transported to Clarkson’s anaerobic digester located at the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Learning Farm in Canton. The anaerobic digester transforms organic waste into valuable products – biogas, a methane-rich fuel used to heat a small greenhouse, and fertilizer, used to enrich the farm gardens.
For the past 8 years, Professor Grimberg’s research team has been researching the benefits of treating organic wastes through anaerobic digestion. “Food waste is a valuable resource, yet Americans discard 40 million tons in landfills annually,” Grimberg said.
Clarkson students have worked with the High School Environmental Club and the Middle School Green Team to support the project with educational presentations, informational posters, and volunteers to supervise and assist with food collection. Since last fall, the students and cafeteria staff have been sending 100-400 liters of waste food to the digester every week.
The partnership, funded by a grant from the E2 Energy to Educate program of Constellation NewEnergy, Inc., and its parent company, Exelon, has also supported opportunities for classroom enrichment. Under the guidance of CCE Educator Nick Hamilton-Honey, Clarkson students developed educational modules about resource recovery and anaerobic digestion, which were shared at a professional development workshop for local teachers in March and were taught with partner teachers Tom VandeWater, Kristen Ames, and Jim Burdick at Canton High School this past spring. In May, three groups of middle and high school students visited the small anaerobic digester at the CCE Farm and a large-scale farm digester at Greenwood Dairy, where they saw the process of resource recovery in action. Overall, thanks to Canton Central teachers VandeWater (HS Environmental Club) and Megan Smith (MS Green Team), the program has engaged a team of 8 Clarkson students and over 500 middle and high school students in the successful food waste separation program.
The goal of this partnership program is to develop school-wide expertise so the food waste separation program will be sustainable in the future and will become a model for other schools. For more information and access to the educational curricula developed through this program, please visit https://sites.clarkson.edu/foodwaste/.