The Palm Frees: Lexus Eco Challenge, 2018

Guest post by teacher advisors Katie Wilson and Dawn Johnson

For their work aimed at researching the environmental impacts of palm oil production and spreading awareness within their community, St. Louis, Missouri, high school students Jane, Mia, Brigid, Leena, Allison, Emma, and Annie are winners in the Lexus Eco Challenge, a national STEM-themed, teamwork-based contest for grades 6 to 12 created by Scholastic and Lexus.

Read on for more information about palm oil and for a Q&A with the winning team’s teacher advisors Katie Wilson and Dawn Johnson! 

Extracted from the fruit of oil palm trees, palm oil is likely an ingredient in many of the products in your home. It’s in detergent, lipstick, the bread on the kitchen counter, the cookies in the cabinet, the margarine in the refrigerator, and more. In fact, palm oil appears in approximately half the items on the shelves of your local supermarket—it’s the most commonly consumed vegetable oil in the world. But it comes at an environmental cost.

Oil palm trees thrive in parts of the world that are hot and humid, with lots of rainfall. Palm oil production in a country like Indonesia has significant impacts on its ecosystem. The deforestation and burning of peatland involved in clearing tropical plants to make room for cultivating oil palm trees contributes to the region’s status as one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Additionally, when this land is cleared for raising oil palm trees, the affected plant and animal species lose their natural habitat and indigenous people can be uprooted from their homes.

Q: Discuss your project’s issue and why your team thought this was an important subject.

A: Our team studied the harmful effects of the palm oil industry on the environment. Many of us hadn’t been aware of the widespread effects of palm oil production before we started this project. We thought it was important to bring awareness to this issue because palm oil is a product used in many everyday items and most often is not obtained sustainably. Some people have heard of palm oil, but they do not realize just how many products contain it. This issue applies to everyone, not only because of palm oil’s use in foods, but also because it is in deodorant, lip balms, and many other products you would never have imagined.

Q: We know you’re likely thinking about the Final Challenge (the details for which you’ll receive soon). Could you tell us about your ongoing efforts with regard to spreading the word about the environmental impact of palm oil production?

A: We are working on setting up appointments with our school’s kitchen staff to make sure that all our prepared food is made with sustainable palm oil. We are adopting animals whose natural habitats have been affected by palm oil production, and we’re putting up posters that help explain what we’re doing in order to get others involved in the conversation. We are planning to educate younger students about this important issue by creating a fun and educational interactive game so that they will be able to share what they’ve learned with their families.

Q: How has this project been a learning experience for you and your students?

A: The Lexus Eco Challenge has been a fun, engaging way to learn more about the important issues affecting our environment. The students learned a lot about the issue and its repercussions on the environment as well as how to work together as a large team. They were able to value each other’s strengths to create an important initial project, and they focused on making a real difference.

Read more about the 2017–2018 winning teams and their inspiring projects here.

Photo courtesy of The Palm Frees, Visitation Academy, Missouri