Changing the future

Chico elementary students serve as leaders for environmental conservation

Emily Akimoto’s fourth grade students Harper Cannon, Ava Carpenter and Meredith Heringer (pictured left to right) finish up their classroom’s Cal Water H2O Challenge portfolio at Sierra View Elementary.

Emily Akimoto’s fourth grade students Harper Cannon, Ava Carpenter and Meredith Heringer (pictured left to right) finish up their classroom’s Cal Water H2O Challenge portfolio at Sierra View Elementary.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

See their work:
A website on the class project can be viewed here: See the students’ video performance of “Old Chico Road” at

Emily Akimoto’s fourth-graders lit up last week as they launched into an animated breakdown of a recent assignment in their classroom at Sierra View Elementary.

They’ve been thinking a lot about the future lately, and captured on camera what they fear it could look like. In the beginning of a creative class video, three students—Reed Peck, Harper Cannon and Meredith Heringer—are playing at school one day when they discover a portal. They jump in to see what’s on the other side and discover a hot, trashy nightmare.

It’s Chico in 2050, and the city is ravaged by unchecked climate change.

“Guys, we need to stop this now!” Peck says. Then Heringer and Cannon reply in unison: “Right! We need a plan!” They give each other a high-ten and it’s time for a musical number—a syllable-for-syllable adaptation of “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X that the students wrote and dubbed “Old Chico Road” (see infobox).

What follows are highlights of the past few months, in which Akimoto’s 32 students have worked on a class project for the Cal Water H2O Challenge. The initiative was launched by California Water Service Co. six years ago to encourage science-literacy in the classrooms of fourth- through sixth-graders. The parameters are broad: Students work on tackling a local water problem and submit a portfolio documenting their research, project and outcomes. The goal is that they come away understanding the importance of water conservation and stewardship.

This is the fourth year Akimoto’s students have participated. For the 2019-20 school year, her class was inspired to concentrate on climate change. They split up into “action committees” focused on water conservation, reusable items, recycling and energy conservation.

On a recent afternoon, the class was putting the final touches on their project portfolio. Many of Akimoto’s students expressed excitement about their committee’s efforts—they spoke about the importance of combating the impacts of climate change, citing research pointing to more heat waves, greater wildfire risk, increased droughts and severe storms and flooding.

Ava Carpenter told the CN&R she worked with her classmates to perform an “eco audit,” examining sprinklers, toilets and leaky faucets across campus. Just one faucet at the school was wasting about 5 gallons a day—almost 2,000 gallons per year, she said. The students compiled that data and contacted the school custodian about the repairs needed.

“A lot of people aren’t believing [climate change is real], and we want to be a part of those people that make a difference,” Carpenter said. “’Cause we’re going to have to live in that world.”

“We only have one planet, and this is our only shot,” Heringer added.

Heringer and Cannon participated in the recycling action group’s schoolwide recycling program. The class takes shifts monitoring the bins at lunchtime to make sure they aren’t contaminated with items like food.

But that’s not all—the students also partnered with ChicoBag to purchase reusable lunch tins for kindergartners and teach them about waste, as well as hand out reusable bags to the community.

Cal Water spokeswoman Yvonne Kingman said that the water service company has a robust water conservation program—the H2O Challenge is a part of that, and it receives a lot of participation in Chico and in nearby Willows. About 50 schools register each year, though not all end up submitting projects.

Last school year, Little Chico Creek Elementary earned fifth place for a project testing the safety of its namesake waterway post-Camp Fire. Students at Parkview Elementary placed third in 2016-17 for increasing community awareness on water conservation through public service announcements, and Shasta Elementary placed first in 2014-15 for creating a native garden and rainwater collection system.

“We love seeing all of the projects that come in,” she said by phone from her Southern California office. “Children are often the best ambassadors for wise water use in their family’s everyday life. … When they learn this as kids, they can carry it into the future with them.”

Akimoto said the Cal Water challenge has proven to be an engaging way for her students to learn concepts across several subjects, including math, science and language arts.

She has had award-winning classes, too. Last year, her fourth-graders placed first for their project on how to protect the watershed in the Camp Fire burn scar, and in the 2016-17 school year, her fifth-graders earned the top prize for a project examining school drinking water safety, inspired by the water contamination crisis in Flint, Mich.

The grand prize is $3,500, plus a camping trip. At Sierra View, Akimoto says she’s used the funds in the past for vital classroom resources—Chromebooks for her students, a touchscreen monitor for teaching and a water bottle refilling station for the campus, which will be installed soon.

This year’s project took about three months and just wrapped up last week, Akimoto said. She and her students anticipate hearing about the awards in March.

“I’m still in awe of everything they’ve been able to get done in this time frame. … It was on top of everything [else] they were already doing,” Akimoto said. “I’m so proud of them. I can’t say that enough.”