While world leaders take center stage at the climate change conference in Copenhagen, students in western Minnesota are quietly finding their own solutions to our concerns about energy and carbon.
They are building solar panels, replacing incandescent bulbs with energy saving Light Emitting Diodes, starting compost bins and even hatching plans for planting green roofs of native grasses atop their schools.
They are part of the Youth Energy Summit!, an annual competition that introduces students to the science and career opportunities that renewable energy and conservation offer the region.
YES! also offers the students an opportunity to make a difference in their communities, and that's what attracts most of them, according to Anne Dybsetter, coordinator of YES! with the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.
"They are willing to get involved, and the fact that they care about things,'' said Dybsetter when asked what impressed her most about the students.
This is the third year that Prairie Woods ELC and the Southwest Initiative Foundation have joined to make possible YES! for students, and it has grown. The Minnesota Renewable Energy Marketplace, Hutchinson and the Prairie Ecology Bus Center, Lakefield, have joined the effort to expand its reach to more schools.
This year there are 21 participating schools, ranging from Springfield High School in Brown County to Ortonville in Big Stone County.
Dybsetter said climate change is an issue on the minds of many of the students, but it is not their only motivation for taking on the challenge of YES!
Some enjoy the challenge of science. Many are interested in the career and economic promise of renewable energy, said Cheryl Glaeser of the Southwest Initiative Foundation in Hutchinson. She noted that farm kids are well represented on some of the southern school teams. They see real opportunities for agriculture as we find ways to harness renewable energy sources.
Dybsetter said that no matter a student's background, they all seem to share to share one characteristic: They are determined to take on practical projects that allow them to make a real difference.
Some are very challenging. The Willmar team is continuing its successful efforts to raise vegetables in a solar and biomass heated greenhouse.
In the New London-Spicer schools, students are building their own, hot-air solar panels for use on the New London Little Theatre. Dybsetter watched on a recent, sub-zero day as the NL-S students gave their prototype panel its trial run: Within minutes, a thermometer inside the panel soared to 163 degrees Fahrenheit.
Other projects are taking place in more comfortable temperature ranges. Dybsetter said projects range from replacing incandescent bulb exit signs in one school to starting worm compost bins to devour school lunch wastes in another.
The northern area teams will be joining Jan. 13 at the Prairie Woods ELC to see what each is doing, and learn from one another. The day's events will include tours of the Willmar greenhouse project on the Minnesota West Technology campus.
Come April, it's the students turn to take the stage when the winning projects are named during an Earth Day celebration at Prairie Woods ELC.
The biggest winner will be southwest Minnesota, according to Glaeser. It's her hope that YES! will serve to introduce the young people to the career and economic opportunities for renewable energy in rural Minnesota, and help convince them to make their futures here.