Students from Holland Middle School win second place in annual GeoChallenge

by Tianna G. Hansen

It’s no secret plastic is a severe pollution problem in our oceans and the world at large, but how do we fix it?

Dawn Nangle tasked her seventh grade students at Holland Middle School with finding a solution to this Plastic Problem using skills and resources available to them as part of the annual National Geographic GeoChallenge.

Three of the six teams from HMS were invited to Harrisburg for a Regional competition with the GeoChallenge out of 1,100 students and over 9,000 entries.

Sixteen teams competed in the regionals.

Two teams from HMS won awards (one for teamwork, one for team spirit) and one team placed second overall, winning a monetary gift for the school.

The teams who won teamwork and team spirit awards were called the Plastic Prevention Problem Solvers, consisting of Shayla Ludwig, Diana Newbauer, Lily Scarlett and Katya Bakaleynikov, and the Plastic Patrol consisting of Valerie Krasnopolsky, Abby Rozengarten, Shakira Ali, Julia Rhodes and Liz Shvelidze.

The team who took home second place called themselves the Plastic Preventers and had the idea to transition plastics usage into bagasse cups, made from the pulp of sugarcane.

They invented a bagasse cup kiosk, where you can place a plastic water bottle inside and use bagasse cups instead, envisioning this as a way to prevent pollution and littering.

The Plastic Preventers team, consisting of students Gwen Sackett, Dylan and Logan Nunez, Edan Kauer, Camryn Gregory and Bobby Challender, had the idea to leave their kiosk on beaches and encourage the use of the cups, which are made from a natural byproduct from the creation of sugar.

“Overall, this group implemented their plan well,” says Dawn. “They already have plans on where to donate the money they won.”

The students mentioned 4Ocean, the team of divers who collect plastic from the ocean and turn them into fashionable bracelets, as a top choice for their donation.

The GeoChallenge is an annual project-based challenge for grades five to eight that puts students in the shoes of National Geographic Explorers, solving real-world issues that face our planet.

“I set it up so they worked independently and in doing so, they had many creative ideas and solutions during the process,” said Dawn. “They learned lifelong skills in the areas of research, collaboration, teamwork, perseverance and application of ideas. They practiced moving into a growth mindset.”

Through the process students developed important 21st-century STEAM skills, including in research and storytelling, videography, cartography, and in innovative design and collaboration.

“I started by bringing in a guest presenter to teach the kids about the plastic problem, and let them go from there,” says Dawn.

This expert informed the students how some companies are addressing the problem as well as helped them develop interview questions to ask an expert in the field.

The students then wrote a script for their video entry that grabbed the viewers’ attention and proposed a solution for the Plastic Problem and how to get plastic out of our waterways.

Students were required to create a map showing the scale of the waterway they chose to study. 

This provided students the opportunity to practice math, geography, and communication skills. 

Working in groups of four to six, the students designed a solution to the GeoChallenge that either prevented or removed plastics from upstream, midstream, or downstream to prevent ocean plastic pollution. 

Solutions varied from using bagasse products to drones.

“We’re the generation to make a difference,” said Gwen, part of the Plastic Preventers.

The students all expressed how this project has inspired them to continue on with their knowledge and carry their ideas into hopeful usage in the future.

“I never knew plastics were such a problem until I started this project,” said Logan. “Now, I’m inspired to make a change in our world and put our ideas into practice.”

To learn more about the National Geographic GeoChallenge, check out