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Captain Planet Foundation: Empowering everyday superheroes

In 1990, Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) debuted an animated series starring five teenagers who, with the assist of earth’s greatest champion, Captain Planet, tackled an array of environmental challenges, working together to take down the “soldiers of slime” and other environmental bad guys. The call to action: “Saving our planet is the thing to do… The power is yours!”

The 113-episode eco-adventure Captain Planet and the Planeteers rocketed to the top of the charts, syndicated broadly across the U.S. and in more than 100 countries. Remarkably, the mission and the message continue to resonate more than 20 years later, and the “Planeteer” movement is alive and thriving—in a Facebook group of 625,000 self-described “Adult Planeteers,” who meet up informally in more than 25 countries, and, most powerfully, in the work of the Atlanta-based Captain Planet Foundation (CPF), which is approaching a milestone of 8 million kids impacted by its programs.

Founded by series producers Barbara Pyle and Ted Turner, and today chaired by Ted’s daughter Laura Turner Seydel, CPF supports high-quality, hands-on environmental stewardship projects that have enabled young people across the U.S. and around the world to make significant environmental improvements to their schools or communities. Through its Small Grants Program, Project Learning Garden, and afterschool “Planeteer Clubs,” CPF helps students implement programs that save money on energy, water, and waste, while implementing clean-air measures that reduce exposure to air pollution. CPF is also involved in a variety of STEM education initiatives that leverage the intersections between technology, innovation, the environment, and personal action.

The enduring power of the series does not surprise CPF Executive Director Leesa Carter, who has come to expect to be serenaded, by kids and adults alike, with the Captain Planet theme song on a regular basis. “It was a brilliant concept,” says Carter, “starring ordinary teens from five continents, making it about a global movement and a diverse set of friends who saw things that needed fixing in their school or community. The show asked [young viewers] to raise their hand and take action when they saw something. And they responded by becoming part of the solution.” 

With a global view that “saw the issues forming,” says Carter, “what’s remarkable is how many of the episodes are still highly relevant today—from climate change to saving the elephants.” 

Empowering kids to “get up and get out”

Through the Project Learning Garden initiative, the Foundation is building lasting relationships with the environment by getting kids outdoors, into the soil, and understanding nature. In each Learning Garden, kids are connecting with fruits and vegetables in a big way, says Carter: “They can barely wait to knock the dirt off before shoving a vegetable in their mouths!”

In an era of endless digital distractions, notes Carter, that connection to the natural world requires careful cultivation more than ever: “What we once did in the course of our play growing up, we now need a ‘get up, get out’ plan to help kids develop those affinities.”

With key funding and program partners on board, Learning Gardens will be established at 110 metro Atlanta schools by the end of 2014, with a goal of 525 metro-wide by 2020. The campaign moves beyond Georgia this fall, when CPF, in partnership with Pratt Industries, will offer the Learning Garden lessons, supplies, and mobile cooking cart at cost to any U.S. school that wants to add them to an existing school garden.

 “What really engages kids,” says Carter, “are opportunities to understand how ideas get put to work in their lives and futures. The education community is eager to get students working hands-on to understand concepts, in order to demonstrate how classroom learning applies to real life.” Studies show, in fact, that project-based learning translates into higher achievement.

The Small Grants Program, meanwhile, is funding initiatives that are doing just that—engaging kids in hands-on projects that empower them to be environmental change-makers. An afterschool program in Newport Beach, Calif. built underwater robots, fitted them with cameras, sent them along the coast to investigate pollution sources, and then organized clean ups. A group in Washington state identified a type of local mushroom that acts as a natural filter to remove motor oil from the soil, and conducted breeding experiments to increase their efficacy. A group of children in the Philippines, overrun with plastic bottles, researched a bottle-block building solution, solving the waste problem and providing no-cost building materials for an eco-education center. And a school project in Texas outfitted one of the last herds of wild bison with radio collars that enable real-time tracking, advancing understanding, support for, and pride in a living state treasure.

Jumpstarting projects everywhere

For its first two decades, CPF’s focus was “supporting educational initiatives by funding formal K-12 programs and informal afterschool programs—from scouts to nature centers —anyone providing hands-on projects for students that delivered real and lasting environmental results,” says Carter. As the foundation celebrated its 20th anniversary, the board recognized a strategic opportunity to amplify their impact. 

“By combing through grant data and taking the time to identify the amazing projects that we’d already funded,we could push best practices and curricula back out to the education community,” says Carter.

Today, the Foundation is committed to actively collecting and developing educator resources and providing a jumpstart for new projects in classrooms anywhere in the world. Their free, online Leadership Center is a growing trove of educator resources where teachers can access practical help—lesson plans, curricula, and other information—and share ideas and resources of their own. Through the “sharing space” of the Leadership Center, CPF has set up a feedback loop that continually advances collective knowledge, refining practices through news about the great work happening. 

Cultivating partners 

The CPF team is driven by a deep affinity for collaboration, says Carter, “and our first step is always to take a good look at the market and see who we can pal around with.” 

“The nonprofit community can, at times, be a little competitive,” she says, though she sees a growing sense of urgency to “tackle problems as a more rapid pace” fueling greater recognition that everyone benefits from increased collaboration.

“With the funding community, we try to find the intersection between our work and their CSR or environmental and sustainability goals,” says Carter. Project Learning Garden, for example, has been a “magical” initiative, “hitting on so many corporate foci,” from education goals (“providing standards and project-based learning in an outdoor laboratory”) to children’s heath and nutrition (“helping kids develop a relationship with healthy foods at an early age and getting outdoors”). 

Whereas Project Learning Garden is a program that “practically funds itself,” says Carter, others can be “a heavier lift.” There’s a different group of funders entirely interested in STEM education and the integration of technology with the environment—a group with whom CPF is now connecting and cultivating. 

One challenge is that “a lot of people view technology and the environment as mutually exclusive,” says Carter, “but the projects exciting educators and kids alike are those that integrate the disciplines.” Those projects don’t just break down preconceived notions, but open up their appeal to a bigger audience. “A robotics class, for example, historically has attracted white males,” says Carter. “When you add an environmental and project-based learning component, we see the class fill with a diverse group of minorities and girls.” 

These kinds of programs are “huge for problem solving,” says Carter, “empowering kids to create change” both now and in the future, when the country, and the world, will need a STEM-educated workforce more than ever.

CPF initiatives are exciting educators, empowering kids, and moving their environmental mission forward—truly a superhero lift.

Betsy Reid is Vice President, Marketing and Communications at GCN.

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