It would have been easy for Pueblo High School environmental science teacher Sarah Subotic to pass on the opportunity to participate in the 2021 STEM Innovation Challenge.

The April deadline to participate was less than two months away by the time she learned about the competition, sponsored by the Center for Energy Workforce Development, a nonprofit consortium representing 120 energy companies committed to building a skilled, diverse workforce pipeline.

And half of her Advanced Placement students weren’t even in the classroom, instead reporting in on Zoom. Many of them were experiencing upheaval at home, with relatives sick or otherwise impacted by the pandemic. Collaborating on a project around sustainable transportation was going to present challenges.

But those challenges only made participation seem more compelling to Subotic, who decided to give it a go.

“Not only did this help with their problem solving skills, but they also had to really use technology to communicate with each other and share content,” Subotic said. “These are practical skills that are just going to be increasingly important as we change the ways we learn and work.”

The contest gave her students an opportunity to build a presentation as a team, which will help in college and in their future careers. The topic also resonated with them.

“A lot of times what we end up discussing in class are things that are happening in the abstract or far away, like the deforestation of the Amazon,” she said. “Changing how we get from place to place is something that can be done right here to make a difference. And as young people concerned about the future, it was an opportunity to think about the decisions they make as individuals and as a community that can really impact the environment.”

The class determined that single-occupant vehicle trips were contributing to pollution, and proposed implementing a bikeshare and carpool program to reduce carbon emissions over time.

As a member of the consortium, TEP helped support the class research, pointing the students to source material they could use in their presentation, including existing carpool programs offered through Sun Rideshare or community bike sharing programs like Tugo.

“It was really impressive that these students were able to meet their deadline, with a compelling presentation despite all of the changes going on in their learning environment,” said Jennifer North, whose role on the Pima Association of Governments’ transportation committee and as TEP’s education liaison made her a perfect fit as an advisor to the group.

“Even though they didn’t win the contest, they gained great experience and thought deeply about new concepts.”

Subotic agreed, noting the students will never forget the concepts they presented. “It was really frustrating being online for most of the year, because we’d otherwise have been doing labs every week. Being able to participate in a project that was meaningful to them and that allowed them to propose solutions that were real and tangible really epitomizes what environmental science is all about.”

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