Did you know that the Purdue community blows through an average of 1.6 plastic drinking straws per person, per day?
Extrapolate that average across a global population and it makes sense that trillions of discarded, non-biodegradable straws are having a negative effect on the environment as they collect in landfills and in the ocean.
Aryan Ghadge, Tristan Hargett, Claire Rightley, Payton Yardley, and Arman Yousefizadeh want to see Purdue make globally conscious changes in this area. By winning the inaugural Fraser Speaking Competition, the five COM 114 classmates will soon have the opportunity to push their cause, with the resources available to accomplish their goal.
For their group project to complete the university’s basic public speaking course, the teammates developed a campaign to reduce straw usage on the Purdue campus. The proposal would encourage Purdue-run dining facilities to make straws available only by request, and would also create an informational campaign discouraging straw usage.
“As someone who is very environmentally conscious, it’s something that’s very important to me,” said Rightley, a first-year engineering student. “I go to eat at the Union a lot because I live right by there, and whenever one of my friends is grabbing for a straw, I’m like, ‘Stop, stop, don’t do that.’ It’s such a small change you can make that really makes an impact over a long time.”
After conducting hours of research into the issue, Rightley and her teammates decided their presentation was strong enough to enter into the new COM 114 competition. What they did not expect was to win.
But sure enough, a team of faculty judges from the Brian Lamb School of Communication rated it best among four finalists in a contest where 37 student groups submitted projects.
“When we first submitted the application, we were just hoping that the best case was we’d be semifinalists and we’d get the $10 Amazon gift card, and we would be happy with that,” first-year engineering freshman Ghadge said after the group’s victorious presentation. “Then they said we were finalists and we were like, ‘Sure, we’ll try.’ And now here we are.”
Instead of the gift card, the five group members split a $1,000 first prize for winning the competition. In addition, they will soon have a chance to see their plan come to fruition.
Starting in spring semester, a new student-based service organization, COM Cares, will assist the previous semester’s winning group and provide up to $3,000 in funding as they work to implement their proposal. The funding comes via an anonymous $25,000 donation that established the service-oriented competition, named after former Lafayette-Jefferson High School media teacher William S. Fraser.
Among the other finalists were teams that proposed designing prosthetic hands for disabled patients using on-campus 3D printers; hosting an annual event at the France A. Cordova Recreational Sports Center to encourage community involvement in the Special Olympics; and providing laptops for nursing home residents and training them how to use email and Skype, while also developing a program where local middle schoolers would become pen pals with the senior citizens.
Each presentation started as a COM 114 group project where students were instructed to identify an issue that affects their community and to present a solution. Course instructors encouraged all groups to enter their projects into the competition.
“I’m kind of a competitive person, so I was like, ‘You know what? Why not? We’re already doing the project for the class. We might as well just throw it in there,’” said first-year engineering freshman Jason Schutt, a finalist from the group that planned to teach laptop skills to nursing home residents. “Then we got to the semifinals and I was like, ‘Whoa, how did that happen?’”
As in the COM 114 course where they originally presented their projects, Fraser competition groups were evaluated on factors like the quality of their verbal delivery and visual aids, the projects’ feasibility and potential impact, and the persuasiveness of their arguments.
“It’s helping them understand you have $3,000, which is actually not that much money, so they have to do research and think about, ‘How much are all of these things going to cost? How much can we actually accomplish with $3,000?’ I think it’s useful in that way,” COM 114 assistant course director Jessica Welch said.
The addition of the COM Cares organization and a Fraser competition each semester will provide closure that was absent from previous COM 114 courses.
In years past, COM 114 groups frequently impressed their instructors by producing high-quality projects. However, the ideas never went anywhere once the course concluded because the proposals were strictly hypothetical.
“At the end of the day, they knew it wasn’t going to happen,” COM 114 course director Jennifer Hall said. “But last fall, one of my master’s students who teaches came to me and said, ‘Some of my groups have these great ideas and nothing happens. Is there a way we could actually get some of these to happen?’”
That graduate instructor, Daniel Mikkelsen, had helped facilitate a public speaking competition at his undergraduate university, Utah State. He found the competition to be a strong motivator for high-achieving students and felt that model would mesh perfectly with the COM 114 group project.
Mikkelsen finally felt compelled to mention the idea to Hall after grading a group’s inexpensive, feasible proposal to hold an end-of-semester “paper toss” celebration where students could bring leftover paper course materials to be recycled.
“For my first two semesters, the projects were just stellar that my students created and I was like, ‘These should happen. These are amazing, but they don’t go anywhere because it’s COM 114. No one wants to stick around with their COM 114 group and actually make it happen,’” Mikkelsen said. “So I thought marrying those two ideas and getting funding for projects would be a really cool way to kind of select the best project out of all these hundreds of projects and actually then fund it and make it happen.”
The cash prize provides motivation to enter, even for students who prefer not to implement their solution. The winners are not required to participate after completing the course, but the competition’s first winning team members indicated that they will be on board in the spring.
California native Yousefizadeh and Yardley, a New Yorker, both hail from locations that already have plastic straw bans in place. Meanwhile, Rightley and Hargett, a member of the Boiler Green Initiative, were interested based upon interests in environmental issues. Finally, while he was not especially interested at first, Ghadge said after the finals that he also wanted to help after learning more about the enormity of the world’s plastic straw problem.
“At the start, I wasn’t really into implementing the solution, but then as we researched more into it and really focused on the problem and I recognized what an important thing it was, that increased my interest in it,” Ghadge said. “Now I would definitely be on board with working on the implementation effort.”
Once they return to campus for the spring, the group members and COM Cares volunteers will begin executing their plan. Hargett said the first step will be to take their plan to the Student Sustainability Council, and then they can launch the anti-straw campaign.
Luckily, the issue already has momentum on the Purdue campus. As part of its “Make This Your Last Straw” initiative, the university’s retail and dining establishments transitioned to eco-friendly paper straws in February. However, there is still plenty of work to be done, both on campus and in the greater West Lafayette/Lafayette community.
For example, West Lafayette city councilor David Sanders, a Purdue professor, is pushing for a similar sustainability campaign in the city, and other non-biodegradable plastics, like silverware, are still in wide use throughout the community.
Thus, the winning group will still have reason to move forward with their informational campaign. And based upon their win in the first Fraser competition, it is evident that the group members know how to collaboratively deliver a convincing argument.
“You never go in expecting for things like this to happen – especially a group of five kids who just met in August, all from very different backgrounds,” said Yardley, a freshman who plans to study social studies education. “It just shows that we can all work together to better the world.”