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Issue Date: September 2012

Lessons Learned: Heidi Paul

Magnificat High School

Heidi Paul makes teenage girls want to get their hands dirty. The Magnificat biology and physics instructor teaches an environmental science class, heads up the student and faculty sustainability clubs, and coordinates the school's composting program.

As a kid, my two best friends and I would say goodbye to our folks after breakfast, and then we would be in the woods all day — playing with the crayfish, picking up trash, being angry at the kids who would go out and drink and leave their garbage in the woods. I've just always been outside, interested in what is all around me.

When I went to college, I was going to go to Africa to save the elephants, get my helicopter license and shoot poachers.

I did a summer internship with the Student Conservation Association at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore one year. I was an interpreter — I would lead groups of inner-city children from Chicago on tours of Indiana Dunes and tell them, "No, Lake Michigan is not saltwater. There are no sharks. This is what this plant is." I had one quarter of college left, and I thought, Oh, my gosh! This is what I want to do — I want to teach people about what they see in the world around them.

Environmental science is an elective. So students know by word of mouth that you're going to be dealing with these bugs, you have to deal with garbage and clean polluted water that Mrs. Paul makes — and it smells really bad. They know going in that it's gross.

A wastewater treatment plant and a garbage dump — those are my field trips. Students ask, "Why would you take us there?" And I say, "Because you'll never go there on your own." When you throw something away, this is where "away" is.

We have a big fundraiser weekend where there's a spaghetti dinner in the cafeteria for two days. The Student Sustainability Club volunteers to sort the trash. Last year was the first year that we had the composting program. After I-don't-know-how-many thousands of people came through, we only had one bag of actual trash each day. Everything else was recycled or sorted or composted.  

The prairie is my favorite ecosystem. That's where the bison are — bison are my favorite living creatures. Don't ask me why. They're just appealing to me.

One of our nicknames for the sustainability clubs is "the Dumpster divers." If we see that somebody threw something in the wrong bin, we will go in, take it out, put it in the right bin, go to the bathroom and wash our hands. It's our thing.

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