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Lakewood High School Students Change Their World

Eight months ago, Cottonwood Institute embarked on a new journey, Mini CAP, with a group of sophomores from FAST Tracks, a dropout prevention program at Lakewood High School. Mini CAP is a spin off of our core curriculum at New Vista High School in Boulder, the Community Adventure Program.  We took our CAP curriculum and revamped it into a mini curriculum to include all of our core components including a student led action project and outdoor skills.  By doing this we are able to connect more kids to the outdoors empowering them to discover their reason for caring about the environment.  Students met twice a week during the 2011/2012 school year with a Cottonwood Institute instructor and embarked on many adventures throughout the year.


We started with a question: Can one person change the world? At the beginning of this course the majority of the students  simply said no because it takes more than one person and left it at that. But at the end of the course – 7 months later – there came a deeper understanding of the same question.  One student summed it up well, “I know I can change the world. But I also know I can’t do it by myself.”


This realization did not come easy. We worked through sarcastic comments, pessimistic thoughts, and even behavioral challenges getting to that point. We read stories, watched movies, hosted guests, wrote poems, played games, went on field trips, participated in team-building and nature awareness activities, learned survival skills, discussed controversial topics, wrote in journals, learned about environmental issues, and completed an action project around water conservation and pollution.

While we started with only a question, we moved rapidly into personal skills and team-building and then put these to the test on our first field trip to tromp through the snow near Conifer where we built a quinzhee snow shelter and had an epic snowball battle.  Taking the outdoor skills we learned back into the classroom, we worked more on understanding environmental issues and why we should care about these issues.  From there we began to formulate our own ideas and interests leading us into our action project.

After hosting guest speakers on a variety of topics from school environmental clubs to water education, we chose to focus our efforts on water conservation and pollution. This involved everything from tracking our water usage for a week, studying other countries’ usage, playing a water relay race, and creating awareness posters on conserving water, bringing us to our culminating project: working with the City of Lakewood Parks and Recreation to continue their cleanup efforts at Main Reservoir, one of 3 reservoirs for the city of Lakewood.  We also toured Marston Water Treatment Plant, giving us a more complete understanding of  how water is processed to ensure safe drinking water.  This entire process, from education to awareness to action, provided a circle of understanding as to why conserving and caring for our water is important for the safety of not only our community, but for the world.

Some may see cleanup projects and posters as mundane work, but in the word of one student, “Yes, I can change the world. Cleaning the park as a class made the park cleaner.  There might still have been some trash, but that’s one less animal that may die from [pollution].”  I recently heard a story about a man throwing starfish back into the sea as they wash up on shore from the tide and another man says that there are too many starfish washing up on shore to make a difference.  The first man then replies, as he tosses yet another starfish back into the sea, “Made a difference to that one.”

We fought pessimism through the entire course as many of the students see the world and themselves as being selfish. While this was difficult to work through, it was rewarding for all when we broke through this cloud and realized that we can only do what we can do and by our actions, others may follow in our steps.  We talked a lot about motivation and inspiration and what makes people take action and while these students may or may not be the next movers and shakers of the world, they will move and shake you. Their words and actions are quite powerful.  This is what inspires them:

“People that have nothing in life and they find a way to make it.”

“What inspires me is family, friends, and situations in general. And I want a good future. That’s inspiration!”

“My family inspires me because they are always telling me that I can do anything if set my mind to it because anything is possible.”

With inspiration and support like this, watch out world, these kids are going to create change! And with additional support from programs such as Mini CAP, devoted educators, and adult and peer mentors, the change they create will be welcomed by all.  What do you think:  Can one person change the world?

I will leave you with this poem from a student, and then ask yourself one more question: Is it worth it?

  • I AM…a talker and keep to myself
  • I WONDER…what can I do to change things in my life
  • I WANT…to help
  • I AM…only one person who tries to help
  • I FEEL…helping people makes me feel better
  • I WORRY…when my family worries
  • I CRY…when my family struggles or when there is no end in sight
  • I SMILE…when the people I care for smile
  • I AM…optimistic
  • I DREAM…of a better world for my family
  • I TRY…to see the world in a different point of view
  • I HOPE…that one day my family will be happy
  • I AM…an outgoing person


A huge shout out to all those that made this program possible: Cottonwood Institute, Wildland Education Awareness Institute for use of its land, Shane Wright of Groundwork Denver, Cottonwood Institute’s Earth Task Force, City of Lakewood Parks and Recreation, Denver Water, Alan Polonsky of City of Denver Department of Environmental Health, and J.D. Prater of Alliance for Climate Education (ACE). A special thanks goes out to both Lakewood High School and teacher extraordinaire, Mr. Robert Giusto!  You rock!


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