Material World workshop teaches middle schoolers about consumerism

posted Feb 14, 2017, 12:33 PM by Hannah Coughlin   [ updated Feb 15, 2017, 12:57 PM by Virginia Cleaveland ]
By Priscilla Brotherton, Sustainable Schools Education Specialist

For the first Material World workshop in our Waste Prevention and Water Conservation programs for middle and high school students, my goal was to teach two classes of 7th graders how their actions have an effect on our world as a whole.

No small task.

We started with the big picture. While seated on the floor in a circle, students were told that the pile of chips in the middle of the circle were for all of us. At the beginning of a round, every student had a chance to take resources from the pile. At the end of the round, I would double whatever was left in the pile, and anyone who had 10 or more chips would get a reward. (In this case, the teacher provided the incentive — their school's "Economy Bucks.") The pile could never be any bigger than what it was at the beginning — our pile was at maximum capacity. And they weren’t allowed to communicate once questions were answered.

What ensued was chaos. Some students dove into the middle to get to the pile first. The round was over before you knew it. Only one or two students got the reward. But, sadly, there was nothing left in the pile. So, nothing could be doubled and the game was over.

“Would you like to try again?” I asked.

As you can imagine, the next couple attempts were equally beneficial to some and frustrating to others. The realization that the pool wouldn’t be doubled had some students trying to police the pool and others begging to be able to speak.

“Would you like to try speaking?” I asked.

To their relief, they had no restraint in sharing their ideas. The cries of unfairness from those who got none were equal to the looks of regret from those who took plenty. Eventually they formed a “civil society,” agreeing upon a way to play the “game” so that everyone was rewarded.

The discussion this simulation offers is rich. When asked to draw parallels between the way the chips were treated and the way individuals, and society as a whole, use or overuse renewable resources, the connection was quickly made to deforestation, overfishing, pollution, and more. And when asked to view each individual as a country, the benefit of communication was undeniable.

This simulation is a pre-lesson to a two-part workshop on consumerism. 

Part two started with a "What do you remember?" question. The responses were happily right on target with my goals. Students remembered that if we deplete or are greedy with our resources, no one wins.

With that reflection, the lesson began with a graphic that illustrates how the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume 25% of its natural resources. We are the person in the circle who is selfishly taking more than our share. Why? How?

We spent the next hour trying to answer those questions and offer some solutions. Students were taken through a brief synopsis of how the garment industry has an impact on our world, through unseen environmental and human costs. Students made difficult decisions on how packaging — an unseen environmental cost — is complicated. They defended their choices and were allowed to change their minds when the situation called for it.

The realization that reducing personal consumption habits is beneficial, but engaging students to take a look at their own purchases in a wants-versus-needs personal inventory is truly eye-opening. Many were surprised that they, in fact, didn’t even know how many of a certain item they owned. They were equally dumbfounded when asked what natural resources were used to make the products. After planting the seeds of awareness of personal contributions to the problem, we moved into solutions.

The creative juices flowed when students were offered different items that would normally head to the landfill, and asked to come up with new uses for each. Examples of repurposed or upcycled products were oohed and aaahed over. To help close the loop, we closed with  a discussion around where, locally, consumers can purchase and recycle used items.

During the final visit, students will participate in a repurposing or upcycling project, teaching them how to take real action on the concept of consumerism.