Teens learn the value of water, by teaching themselves

Teams from four high schools took up Denver Water’s challenge to ‘keep the water flowing.’

May 23, 2016 | By: Matt Bond, Tom McMichen

On April 7, 2016, "The Caring Cowboys" of West Campus took home the Challenge 5280 prize for sustainability.
On April 7, 2016, “The Caring Cowboys” of West Campus took home the Challenge 5280 prize for sustainability.

Issuing a dare to a teenager is akin to giving a Sharpie to a toddler in a freshly painted room. But that didn’t stop us.

Last September, Denver Water and seven other organizations challenged high school students to tackle some the toughest issues facing their communities. The program, called Challenge 5280, gave 21 high schools nine months to design and produce their programs.

For its part, Denver Water challenged students “to creatively educate your peers about the value of water and inspire fun, water-efficient lifestyles that will keep our water flowing today and far into the future.”

Four high school teams accepted: West Campus High School, North High School, Denver School of the Arts and Career Education Center/Middle College of Denver.

And as is often the case, plans rarely survive their first contact with reality. Factor in overly ambitious scopes, strong personalities, schedule conflicts and shifts in team direction, and each of the four water schools faced some tense moments, testing their burgeoning leadership skills.

But forge ahead they did. Here’s a quick look at their projects:

Teaming up for Trick or Treat

CEC/MCD teamed up with their North High School counterparts to educate the public about water during a community Trick or Treat Street event. The students talked about the healthy advantages of drinking tap water and using water efficiently. They passed out Denver Water-supplied shower timers, refillable water bottles and exchanged inefficient showerheads for high-efficiency models.

The North team collected the old showerheads and gave them to one of their art teachers to use in a class sculpture project. Both teams designed materials with water-saving tips and posted them around their schools. In the end, North and CEC/MCD opted to narrow their focus to their individual schools as primary audiences rather than their dauntingly larger community.

That said, the teams reached over a thousand people.

Clockwise from top left: Denver School of the Arts, CEC Middle College of Denver/North High School and West High School accepted Denver Water’s challenge as part of Challenge 5280.
Clockwise from top left: Denver School of the Arts, CEC Middle College of Denver/North High School and West High School accepted Denver Water’s challenge as part of Challenge 5280.

Going for a younger crowd

Students at the Denver School of the Arts wanted to develop a tech-based water conservation awareness plan, then opted instead for an education program targeting elementary schools. The curriculum they developed taught students about water conservation on a global scale. They focused on science, technology and the social importance of access to water worldwide, particularly as it relates to gender and economic inequality.

The program included hands-on activities like simple experiments around water, as well as written content to educate students on the international significance of water shortages. Focusing on a younger audience invigorated the team and jumpstarted them just as they were starting to stall.

Cowboys go video

There are actually two high schools on the old West High School campus, and they combined into a single team. Calling themselves “The Caring Cowboys,” the students set out to create a water efficiency awareness campaign. They produced a video stylized like a Spanish-language soap opera and hung promotional material around the school building asking their fellow students to think differently about the value of water.

The group faced some logistical issues, including how to balance their different schedules at the two schools. But The Caring Cowboys still found a way to meet, often on their own time. They even found ways to deepen and broaden the scope of their proposal.

They developed a video game about saving water and used social media outlets as channels for their messages. They even entered a second competition called the Think It Up Challenge and won $1,000 to help fund the creation of a nonprofit organization with a mission to replace bottled water vending machines in the school with bottle-filling drinking fountains.

When asked to reflect on the challenge and the process, one Cowboy replied, “We learned that having fresh water come out of our (faucets) is a luxury, and that (many) children in the world do not have that. So even if we are not rich and feel that we might be marginalized, our lot in life is still better than most children in the world.”

On April 7, all 21 Challenge 5280 teams met for a final award ceremony to showcase their projects. The judges, including several members of the Denver Board of Education, visited every team to discuss the projects.

A winner was selected in each of the three award categories: innovation, collaboration and sustainability. The Caring Cowboys of West Campus took home the prize for sustainability and will now attend a leadership summit in Orlando, Florida, with the other two winning teams from the challenge.

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