January 27, 2012

2012 Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Cardinal Ritter students focus on care for God’s creation

Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School science teacher Mary Pat O’Connor, center, helps seniors Charlie Elliott, from left, Claire Osecki and Vanessa Lynn collect water samples from Crooked Creek in Indianapolis during an ecology class field trip in January 2011. The students graduated on June 3. (Submitted photo)

Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School science teacher Mary Pat O’Connor, center, helps seniors Charlie Elliott, from left, Claire Osecki and Vanessa Lynn collect water samples from Crooked Creek in Indianapolis during an ecology class field trip in January 2011. The students graduated on June 3. (Submitted photo)

By Mary Ann Garber

“Reuse. Recycle. Rejoice.”

The sign in Mary Pat O’Connor’s ecology classroom at Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis reminds students of the importance of caring for God’s creation.

Cardinal Ritter students are doing their part to protect the environment and lower their carbon footprints with a number of ecology-related projects at the Indianapolis West Deanery campus.

Teenagers enrolled in O’Connor’s ecology class are working hard to help achieve National Green Ribbon Schools status for Cardinal Ritter by educating all the students about ways to be kinder to Planet Earth.

Ecology students also are enthusiastic about raising funds for water purification projects in Haiti, collecting electronics and other kinds of recyclables, monitoring water quality in nearby Crooked Creek, reducing litter on city streets, starting a salad bar in the school cafeteria to promote healthier diets, and encouraging more ecofriendly lifestyles among their peers.

Senior Tad Starsiak became interested in protecting the environment when he was a student at St. Christopher School in Indianapolis and began volunteering as a Zoo Teen at the Indianapolis Zoo.

“That was a lot of fun,” Tad said. “We did [educational] shows with the animals and talked about the environment.”

At Cardinal Ritter, he appreciates how the students are focused on recycling, and the faculty and administrators are open to implementing the students’ ideas about ways to improve the school environment.

Next year, he will major in philosophy at Marian University, play football for the Knights and make time for nature walks in Marian’s outdoor EcoLab.

“We’re supposed to care for God’s creation,” Tad said. “That’s one of the Catholic social teachings.”

Senior Anna Beyer attended St. Michael School in Indianapolis, where she developed an interest in science.

She enjoys ecology class assignments, which are “all about becoming healthier and more environmentally friendly” as well as trying to make a positive difference in the world.

A class field trip to the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in Vigo County was “really cool,” Anna said, because the students watched a demonstration on water and wetlands.

Nature field trips to nearby Crooked Creek are fun too, she said, and include monitoring water quality, picking up trash and searching for different kinds of insect larvae that indicate whether the stream is clean or polluted.

“That’s a real hands-on experience,” Anna explained, “to teach kids about how we can make a difference in the world.”

At home, she takes shorter showers, turns off lights when she leaves a room, and appreciates energy-efficient lighting and appliances.

At Cardinal Ritter, Anna carpools to swim team practices with four other students as one way to lower her carbon footprint on the environment.

As a science teacher, O’Connor enjoys helping the students learn ways to connect biology, faith and respect for the environment.

Cardinal Ritter has promoted paper recycling for years, she said, and the school began recycling aluminum, glass, plastic and cardboard last year.

During this school year, O’Connor said, the faculty, staff and students increased the amount of recycled paper weight by 30 percent more than last year.

Ecology class assignments include field trips, school and community service projects, and studying environmental regulations to make the students aware of legal protections for natural resources.

“We talk about ‘Where does this [object] end up if we aren’t recycling it?’ ” she said. “We clean up the area near the [Major Taylor] Velodrome every time that we go to Crooked Creek, which is about five minutes from the school. You would not believe what kinds of things we have found there—shower doors, grills, tires, all kinds of litter and trash.”

The good news, O’Connor said, is that “the water really is of good quality” in the creek, which runs through Marian’s campus then past the Velodrome and Lake Sullivan into the White River.

Field trips offer “fantastic teaching moments for the kids,” she said. “One year, we participated in the city’s cigarette litter clean-up campaign. We picked up cigarette butts along 30th Street and by the creek.

“The students learned that toxins from the cigarettes wash into the water supply,” O’Connor said. “They talked to business owners about putting containers outside their stores to collect cigarette litter. They realized that they could affect a change by trying to correct the source of the problem, and they could tell they were making a difference.”

O’Connor begins the ecology curriculum each fall by asking the students to choose an environmental project to focus on all year, which empowers them to work harder to improve their community.

“Last year, we studied water quality and that evolved into discussions on water as a right of life,” she said. “We started looking at places in the world where people did not have enough water or they had flooding and didn’t have clean water.”

That research led the students to sponsor a fundraiser on March 22—which is World Water Day—to help pay for a $3,500 water purification system provided by Fountains of Hope and St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg for St. Marguerite Parish in Port Margot, Haiti.

The fundraiser also built school unity as teachers, staff, students and parents donated a quarter for each vote to select faculty and student “Brain Game” teams for a school competition.

The match was broadcast on the school’s television channel, and the student team won by one question. The same students also won WTHR Channel 13’s “Brain Game” competition.

But the real winners were the Haitian people who benefited from clean water thanks to the $900 donation raised by the Cardinal Ritter family.

“It was a combination of science and our Catholic social teachings, which made it a perfect project,” O’Connor said. “We are continuing that fundraiser again this March to send more funds to Haiti for water


Last semester, students wrote essays on how climate change affects the water cycle worldwide and our responsibilities as Christians to take care of the environment.

Cardinal Ritter’s most recent ecology project on Jan. 18 resulted in donations of nearly two truckloads of electronics and other recyclables.

This semester, students are studying more ways to conserve natural resources, create more green spaces and protect the environment.

Those educational efforts will give them a head start on celebrating Earth Day on April 23.

(For more information about Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School’s recycling program, contact Mary Pat O’Connor at moconnor@cardinalritter.org. For more information about the Green Ribbon Schools program, log on to www.greenribbonschools.org.)

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