St. James students win $30K in national energy contest

When Gina Pignotti, a science teacher at St. James School, introduced the Lexus Eco Challenge to her eighth graders last fall, she had no way of knowing the impact the project would have on the school.

Not only did her students win $10,000 in the first stage of the contest, but on April 7th, they were one of two teams selected nationwide to receive the $30,000 grand prize for a total of $40,000. At an assembly on Friday, April 15, the team was recognized in front of their school for their victory.

Special guests included Dave Griebler, the Lexus Central Area manager, Chris Carnevele, local Lexus Dealer, Margaret Collins, Manager of Corporate Communications at MG&E, and Lori Berquam, Dean of Students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Lexus Eco Challenge is a national contest that supports energy and climate-related projects. Lexus challenged students from across the country to define an environmental issue and develop and implement the plan for addressing it. Their aim was to “empower middle and high school students to learn about the environment and take action to improve it.”

“As a teacher, [I] really appreciated that this challenge overall, allowed students to engage in a relevant topic and to actually do something meaningful,” Pignotti said about the experience.

At the beginning of the school year, Pignotti split her class of eight graders into two teams, one researching land and water-related environmental issues, and the other researching air and climate issues.

The air and climate team zoned in on renewable energy, and began researching solar panels as a source of alternative energy for schools. After consulting Madison Gas and Electric, the team realized that they needed only $7,000 to put a solar panel on their school. Deeming themselves “The Ladies of the Light”, they started fundraising this year, reaching out to the community and local businesses for help.

In early March the Ladies found out that they had won the first round of the challenge.  For the final challenge, the team worked with Tim Tynan, a UW-Madison life science and communications teaching assistant to create a documentary video of their project to raise awareness of and promote energy conservation in the Madison community.

During the assembly, Tynan talked about how easy it was to work with the students because they worked as a team.
“You have to take advantage of what your team has,” says Fiona Statz, one of the students from the winning team, citing teamwork as a key ingredient for their success.

So far, the team has raised enough funds for two solar panels, including the award money, and plan to appeal to local businesses and grants to raise enough to buy a third panel before the end of the school year.

“We’ve already written letters to businesses and are waiting to hear back from them,” said Laura Whitt, one of the students on the team.

The students want to start a scholarship to help jump-start renewable energy initiatives in other Madison-area schools. “We’d like to give [other schools] a thousand dollars so that they can start getting solar panels for their schools,” says Andrea Wright, another team member.

To further inspire students to take action on environmental issues, the team created a lesson plan to teach younger students in St. James and other area schools about renewable energy.

For next year, the team has challenged the upcoming eighth grade class to continue the project or to find their own sustainability project.

“Keep trying. Even if they aren’t doing as much as we did, they are doing something and that counts,” Whitt advises.

“And it’s worth it,” Wright adds.

Pignotti believes the solar panels will be installed by the end of this summer after a final assessment by MG&E.