Mohawk Trail Regional School Eighth Grade Policy Summit connects students to local issues

  • From left, Mohawk Trail Regional School students Owen Heilman and Gavin Crossman proposed a cleanup of the Deerfield River as part of the Eighth Grade Policy Summit. The proposal was based on their own use of the river and how they’ve seen it change over time. Contributed photo

  • From left, Mohawk Trail Regional School students Avery Johnston and Julia Patenaude present their proposal on local food banks as part of the Eighth Grade Policy Summit. They cited tested concepts such as the Shelburne Falls community fridge and food pantries of Ashfield and Greenfield as part of their research. Contributed photo

For the Recorder
Published: 6/22/2021 5:54:47 PM

BUCKLAND — Mohawk Trail Regional School eighth-graders have their sights set outside of the classroom as they finish up their school year, having spent three days presenting policy proposals on local topics as part of their Eighth Grade Policy Summit.

Overseen by civics teacher Taylor Dadmun and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teacher Travis Minnick, the Eighth Grade Policy Summit is an opportunity for students to work on an interdisciplinary project connected to their communities. A total of 52 proposals were completed by students.

“We wanted to give students a lot of choice and voice, and let them identify a problem in their community that mattered to them,” Minnick said. “To teach them that strong policy can be informed through science and that it can directly be impacted by citizens’ experiences.”

The creation of the Policy Summit was initially a result of a Massachusetts state law requiring eighth-graders to complete a civics service learning project. Dadmun and Minnick realized they could use the overlap present in their separate final project ideas to create a concept combining data and policy knowledge.

Dadmun and Minnick want to show students that hands-on work can impact seemingly far-reaching policy implementation. Their learning has been about “getting away from this ‘hero’ narrative” that someone with more expertise will swoop in to solve problems, Dadmun explained, and showing them that “it’s people on the ground that can see a problem and do something about it.”

Students worked on their proposals for about four weeks, going through the process of researching, collecting data and obtaining expert interviews to understand their chosen issues. Between obtaining tools to sample water and look at algae, to speaking with University of Massachusetts Amherst faculty members, students were in the “driver’s seat” through the whole process, Minnick said.

With proposals came issues such as water pollution, littering, algal growth and trash cleanup in the region. One policy proposal in particular, by Elias Crowell, focused on chemical spills and related to what many community members saw happen to fish after the sulphuric acid leak in the North River in Colrain in 2019. Crowell put together a proposal to penalize — via taxes — companies that cause chemical spills.

“The amount of tax would be decided on by the Massachusetts Waste Site Cleanup Advisory Committee based on the size of the spill and the size of the company that caused it,” Crowell said, noting that chemical spills happen 50 or 60 times every year. The amount of damage that can be done by one, let alone 50, is large enough to make this penalty worthwhile, he continued.

He plans to petition state Sen. Adams Hinds, D-Pittsfield, though Crowell wants to gather 50 signatures before proposing the policy.

Other proposals for implementing community fridges, aiding local food banks and creating community gardens were presented.

“I would love to give people the opportunity to be kind to our planet,” Allie Martin began, explaining her community garden proposal for the Shelburne area that would combine planet-friendly compost and community greenspace. Her data included a survey determining how many Mohawk Trail Regional School families are composting with normalcy.

It was amazing, Minnick said, to see how the school’s “outdoors-oriented community” was reflected in the students’ proposals. Thanks to the Eighth Grade Policy Summit, “we have nearly 70 students who are aware to some degree of these problems and how they can go about trying to solve them.”


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