Harper Fortgang, a student at Proof School in San Francisco, is a member of the award-winning Team Super Plants, which is growing California native plants with “supercharged” roots that fight climate change. (Courtesy Michael Yetman)

Green Space: Middle-school students attack climate change with ‘Super Plants’

SF team wins Cousteau-sponsored challenge with biodiversity project

It’s been said before, and I’ll say it again: The last six months have been rough for San Franciscans. The continuing devastation to the West and our lungs are just the latest miseries we’ve had to endure this year. In times like this, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future. But a team of inspirational San Francisco students is offering us some hope.

“We need to make changes to protect our biodiversity and lower our carbon dioxide emissions now,” Harper Fortgang, a seventh grade student at Proof School in SoMa, told me. “Bottom line is we can use the power our natural environment possesses to mitigate the extraordinary risks it faces.”

Last month, Fortgang and two fellow Proof School students, Lucia Greenhouse and Parley Marvit, were awarded a grand prize through EarthEcho International’s OurEcho Challenge. The new competition equips teams of U.S. middle school students with grants to support projects that protect and restore biodiversity. San Francisco’s team Super Plants intends to create a wave of planting activism with its peers by using native supercharged plants that take in more carbon dioxide than normal.

Scientist-activist Harper Fortgang and her classmates earned honors in EarthEcho International’s OurEcho Challenge with their Super Plant biodiversity project. (Courtesy Michael Yetman)

The idea came to Fortgang in fifth grade after she learned that plants take in carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. But it gained momentum at Proof School. There, she met Greenhouse and Marvit who were eager to team up with her and get to work.

“We thought we would find plants that scientists had modified, but it turned out those plants were invasive,” Greenhouse explained. “So we chose to research California native plants that take in more carbon dioxide and are safe.”

Team Super Plants is researching California native “supercharged plants” that take in more carbon dioxide than normal. (Courtesy Michael Yetman)

Merging their findings with activism is important to the students. That’s why Team Super Plants intends to use its grant to continue research and expand awareness. Currently, they are looking at a range of promising species that will each work with particular soils and ecosystems, such as dry, wet, sunny and shady.

As they find these species, they plan to provide educational materials and kits to teachers and students, which will include Super Plant seeds, so the environment and science education can both thrive. The team has also created an educational module about biodiversity, carbon sequestration and photosynthesis that teachers can add into their fourth to sixth grades science curricula. The goal is to provide these resources to 90 schools over the next 12-24 months.

Teachers in San Francisco have reacted positively to the project. Educators appreciate that it’s a student-led project that aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards curriculum.

Team Super Plants has also received support from Supervisor Aaron Peskin and research organizations, such as the Petaluma-based Carbon Cycle Institute. The students hope to partner with more community organizations to sponsor wider plantings and possibly provide financial support to reach more kids and schools.

These times may be dark, but the many smart and passionate youth activists are a ray of light. Helping that ray grow is one of the reasons Philippe Cousteau Jr.’s nonprofit EarthEcho International organized the OurEcho Challenge. The grandson of the legendary conservationist Jacques Cousteau launched the organization to empower youth voices, and plans to organize future ecologically-themed challenges.

“While many adults discount what youth can do, I have seen them achieve incredible things,” Cousteau told me. “The inspiring amount of creativity that these youth exhibited through the challenge is a continuation of the extraordinary imagination and drive that we have seen exhibited by youth around the world.”

Yes, this kind of positivity may be hard to imagine during this time of pandemic, historic fires, ongoing racial violence and political divisiveness. But a better world is possible. And it’s a breath of fresh air to see young, San Francisco students using science to help make our future healthier, more secure and more connected.

As Marvit told me, “I really like science because of the common understanding that bridges many cultural divides.”

Team Super Plants encourages students throughout the Bay Area to join their Implementation Council, and is seeking support from community organizations. To contact them, visit projectsuperplants@gmail.com.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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