Photo from Discovery Communications
Rani Iyer and Isha Laad had stains on their clothes. Oil, lipstick, chocolate, and wine soiled light and dark sequined, wool, and silk fabrics. In the name of science, the two sixth graders put clothes on the floor and carefully and methodically stained them as part of their project about the effects of dry cleaning.
The Jonas Clarke Middle School
students were named state champions in the middle school division of the “We
Can Change the World” challenge, a program sponsored by the Siemens Foundation,
Discovery Education, and the National Science Teachers Association. The project asks students to choose an
issue in their community and come up with a plan of action to remedy the
The Lexington team “Lex Green
clean,” inspired by the strong fumes they noticed from the dry cleaner’s,
looked at alternatives to commercial dry cleaning, testing the quality of
alternatives such as wet cleaning, said Iyer. When they compared the results, the girls found that the
more environmentally friendly wet cleaning “did a better job.”
With Vidhya Iyer serving as their
mentor, the girls did scientific tests and community education about their
Their scientific experiments consisted of two parts—testing how well different methods cleaned the clothes, and testing the chemicals involved in the cleaning processes. The team went to the labs at Assumption College and tested the clothes for fluoride, chloride, nitrogen and sulfate.
They also worked with Joy Onasch, who oversees the community program at the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at U-Mass Lowell.
In March, they gave a presentation to the Board of Selectmen. They also gave a presentation to classmates in the library, educating them about the chemical perchloroethylene, or Perc, a harmful chemical used in dry cleaning.
Over 6,500 middle school students participated in the program nation-wide, according to Jeniffer Harper-Taylor, president of the Siemends Foundation. Finalists from each state were chosen by a panel of environmental advocates and science educators.
Harper-Taylor said that the Lexington team’s project started with the simple observation of a strong odor coming from the dry cleaners and looking into the impact it might have on workers and the environment.
Through the program, Harper-Taylor said, students can learn how they can “impact their school, community, and the world.”
Last year’s national champion, she recalled, was a team from Iowa that looked at the impact lead wheel weights, used to weigh down tires during oil changes, have on the environment. She said the group raised awareness about the issue, impacting local legislation and even having a meeting with the Environmental Protection Agency and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
The national champions win a $10,000 savings bond, a trip to Yellowstone National Park, an appearance on the Planet Green TV network, and a chance to present their project to the United Nations.
Iyer said she’s talked to friends and family about how dry cleaning can be harmful. Laad recalled the input the pair received after they gave a presentation about their project in the library. A survey that asked questions about dry cleaning habits showed that most people were likely to change from dry to wet cleaning.
The girls keep busy otherwise—Iyer likes to fence, sing, play the violin, knit and crochet. Laad said she is into soccer, Indian and American dance, and reading.
Now, their daughters are working on a project to keep Lexington green—and having fun in the process. More information about their project can be found at their website, http://wetcleaning.weebly.com.