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St. John School, KU professor receive conservation awards

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A Lawrence-area Catholic school and a Kansas University engineering professor have been named recipients of the 2013 Excellence in Conservation and Environmental Education Awards.

The awards are given each year by the Kansas Association of Conservation and Environmental Education.

St. John Catholic School, 1208 Kentucky, received an award for its Green School initiative, which incorporates environmental education throughout the school curriculum. School officials say the program started in 2011 with efforts to reduce waste in the school cafeteria.

After realizing how much waste food was being collected for composting, the school developed a new way of serving food that encouraged students to make healthy choices. Officials estimate the program also reduced the amount of wasted food by about 3.5 tons per year.

Since then, St. John has launched a schoolwide Green School initiative to increase awareness about resource conservation. Teachers use inquiry-based learning in math and science to involve students in developing plans to conserve energy throughout the school. Teachers are also encouraged to "bring nature into the school" to help students learn about life cycles and principles of stewardship.

That initiative was funded in part with a $7,129 grant from the Douglas County Community Foundation's Environmental Fund, which helped pay for educational tools, energy efficiency and water conservation upgrades to the school's existing building, as well as new classrooms that are currently under construction.

St. John is a K-8 school with 278 students.

Dr. Christopher Depcik, assistant professor of mechanical engineering who began the KU EcoHawks program, was also named a winner of this year's KACEE awards.

Launched in 2008, EcoHawks encourages engineering students to use sustainability concepts in engineering by applying what he calls the "five E's" to their designs: energy, environment, education, economics and ethics.

In the program's first year, students recycled a 1974 Volkswagen Beetle by turning it into a hybrid electric vehicle that uses lead-acid batteries and bio-diesel made entirely from used cooking oil from campus. Recent road tests reportedly have shown the car reaches the equivalent of more than 100 miles per gallon.

Depcik also works with K-12 teachers and students developing lesson plans to teach about biofuels, hosting a summer engineering camp for high school students and sponsoring a battery-powered car design competition.

Depcik earned his bachelor's degree, two master's degrees and a Ph.D. in engineering, from the University of Michigan.

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