Imagine if you were a kid entrusted with $500 to do anything you wanted… to help your local environment.

For a generation of kids growing up aware of environmental challenges and learning in school about the impact their choices have in the world, those $500 represent an opportunity to see how research and thoughtful planning can make a difference.

Now in its second year, the ’s Environmental Mini-Grants offer three awards of $500 to students at each elementary school to positively impact their school environment. Students are invited to define an environmental improvement, come up with a solution, and create a budget and plan for their projects. The mini-grants are awarded by the Environmental Stewardship Commission (ESC) and funded through the city’s rebate from for its annual recycling yield. ESC chair Chris Babb notes commission members enjoy reading the students’ innovative approaches to solving environmental problems. “Helping our students learn that their ideas can actually be turned into reality is so important for developing creative thinkers and our future problem solvers,” adds Babb.

This year, the grant funding went to students from Mrs. Roush’s first grade class at Hilltop Elementary who requested funds for solutions to keep deer from gobbling up the school’s butterfly garden and soil amendments for the vegetable garden. At Vermont, students and teachers applied to add soil amendments to each of the schools 26 garden plots and to mitigate erosion around the playground.

Over at Elm, Henry Bernay, Allison Burns, Matthew Erickson, Emme Kurtz, Maya Patel, and August Valerius decided they were most interested in more energy-efficient lighting.

“These mini-grants have been an incredible catalyst for collaboration!” said Principal LaDora Hill. “They have provided a wonderful opportunity for our students to generate creative ideas while working hand-in-hand with their teachers, parents, administrators and staff, and with support from the City of Wyoming. It’s wonderful that our students have been able to see their innovative ideas come to fruition and the positive impact their actions have had and will continue to have on their local environment.”

During one of the steamy last days of school, a group of fourth graders sat at an Elm playground picnic table explaining their project to City Councilwoman , now that the work was done and they could see the results of their effort.

Matthew Erickson came to school with the idea for LED lights but refuses to take credit (it was a something his mom talked to him about). It turns out a bunch of the kids’ moms told them about the grant, which is what got them interested in the first place. “My mom was begging me to apply,” says Maya Patel.

Allison Burns and Maya say they wanted to have hand dryers installed, “but it was too expensive,” says Maya.

“We were thinking about doing paper straws,” Henry Bernay offers.

“We were thinking about reusable trays,” adds Emme Kurtz, “but we don’t have a dishwasher and it would cost a lot to get a dishwasher.” Maya and Allison agree there isn’t much space in the school’s kitchen for a dishwasher. August Valerius prompts a discussion about what happens to the current disposable trays, and the kids sweep into a debate about tray waste and how the plastic reusable trays for students with allergies get cleaned. Evidently the process of coming up with their grant request was a lot like this—full of passionate debate about the everyday items that make up their school days.

“What is clear to me after talking to these students,” said Stankorb Taylor later, “is the future is in good hands. Kids in this city are increasingly and incredibly mindful about the environment, and having an opportunity to formulate solutions empowered this group to hone the best idea they could come up with.”

After Matthew started talking about LED lights, “we looked online to find information about them, to find out why LED was better than HID,” says Henry. (HID, the kids learned, stands for high-intensity discharge lamp.)

“[LED’s] don’t waste as much energy,” said Allison, “because they don’t shine 360 [degrees], they only go 180.”

Yeah, agree Emme and Henry, bubbling over at the same time. HIDs put light up into the sky where it’s not used. “Also, HID’s can produce UV radiation,” notes Emme. “And LED’s use much less energy and in the long-term can save you money.”

Once the students agreed that changing the school’s outdoor lightbulbs to LED’s was their preferred option, Matthew explains, “We talked to the guy in charge of lights,” Tom Wright, the district’s Supervisor of Facilities & Grounds.

Henry remembers that at first they’d wanted to add LED’s throughout the school but were surprised to learn LED’s were already in use inside the building. Maya and Allison describe how Mr. Wright explained where they could change the lights outside.

The students also learned an important lesson about grant-writing: partnerships are everything. “If we’d had to pay to install them,” noted Allison, “we might not have been able to do it.” But since the school’s custodial staff agreed to install the lights, the students really only needed grant funds to cover the bulbs themselves.

It took the kids about an hour and a half to write the grant after they made their plan. They met at Allison’s house, where there were lots of good snacks—again there’s another wave of chatter, especially about the Extra Cheddar Goldfish.

Allison and Matthew say they were pretty confident when the group finally submitted its grant application, thinking their chances of earning the award were pretty good.

After the awards were announced and the fund dispersed, the students were invited out to watch the custodial crew put in the new bulbs. “I definitely couldn’t have done it,” said August, as the entire group started describing how the custodians brought the pole down to put in the new light. They are satisfied that they’re leaving something positive behind at Elm as they move up to middle school, and were excited to hear from Stankorb Taylor that next year, students at any Wyoming schools will be eligible to compete for the three mini-grants.