Collaborating to Compost

April Meyers conducts research on composting with Professor Mike McKinney after winning the 2010 Marian Oates scholarship for environmental studies.

Professor Mike McKinney is working to change our thinking about what we do with food waste through an environmental education program that he developed with an undergraduate student and middle school teachers. At the heart of the program is recycling food waste through composting.

“Composting is a way to recycle food waste from cafeterias and the compost can be used in landscaping as high quality fertilizer for native plant and vegetable gardens,” says McKinney, professor and director of the environmental studies program in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

The composting education project began when McKinney signed on as faculty sponsor for Bryan Alexander, an environmental studies major who applied for a small grant last year from the Undergraduate Internship Committee to study the feasibility of starting a composting program at UT Knoxville.  McKinney had wanted to start a composting site at UT for several years.

“UT already had a recycling program in place but needed to work on a compost site. I knew our campus could save money and benefit the environment by getting serious about composting and recycling,” McKinney says. “And if we could start a successful composting program on campus, the benefits could spill over into the community.”

Undergraduate student Bryan Alexander helps April Meyers start a compost site at Norris Middle School.

Those community benefits appeared quickly. As McKinney and Alexander began working with UT Recycling Coordinator Jay Price and others on the pilot composting project at UT, they got additional help from April Meyers, a science teacher at Norris Middle School in Anderson County, who came to work with McKinney after receiving a Marian Oates summer scholarship for environmental studies.

During the summer, Meyers began research about composting while getting hands-on experience with the UT project. When she returned to her school, McKinney and Alexander collaborated with her to launch a composting program that has ultimately engaged the student body at Norris Middle and provided an opportunity to teach not only her science students, but also the entire school about composting and recycling.

“It seems like an easy enough task to gather food scraps and other organic materials to make compost,” Meyers says, “but there are many facets [to composting] that include logistics, funding, labor, and scientific data collection.”  Meyers was able to tie in Tennessee state curriculum standards in science, math, and English as part of starting and maintaining the compost site.

Rewarded by Meyers’ success, McKinney welcomed the opportunity to work this summer with Michele Ballard, an eighth grade science teacher at Seymour Middle School who was the 2011 recipient of the Marian Oates scholarship for environmental studies. Ballard wanted to learn how to start both recycling and composting programs at Seymour Middle during the 2011–2012 school year.  Meyers was willing to return to the Knoxville campus to meet with Ballard to share her experience and to offer encouragement.

Michele Ballard, recipient of the 2011 Marian Oates scholarship, learns the mechanics of composting and recycling from Professor Mike McKinney this summer.

Over the course of her summer study, Ballard has learned the mechanics of composting and recycling and how to incorporate both activities into her teaching to make them educational vehicles for students to learn science.

“It’s been a dream of mine to start these programs at my school, but I didn’t know where to begin,” Ballard says. “With instruction from Dr. McKinney and the example of April Meyers, I will now be able to realize this dream during the coming school year.”

McKinney’s experience with Meyers and Ballard demonstrated the potential impact of a single teacher in a school and inspired him to reach out to local schools with the support of his students in UT’s Environmental Club. This fall, students will be available to visit area middle and high schools to deliver presentations about recycling and composting and to offer help to any school wishing to start its own program.

“It’s a win for the schools in that they will gain an educational ‘laboratory’ for the study of decomposition and recycling and also benefit from lower costs to landfill their waste,” McKinney says.  “By passing on the knowledge to teachers—who, in turn, pass it on to their students—we can touch a lot of lives year after year and make a huge impact on environmental awareness in the community.”

–Kim Midkiff