For the last year, sixth graders Lilly Connor, Madison George, and Ruby Anderson have been dreaming of a trashcan.

More specifically, the three students from Colchester Middle School (CMS) have spent the last year investigating water pollution, raising funds, and negotiating with the town in order to install a trash and recycling station at Rosetti Natural Area, colloquially known as Thayer Beach. On Friday, May 24, their small yet mighty dream came true.

Last Friday, the students were excused from classes in order to christen a new trash and recycling station at Thayer Beach. According to Assistant Director of Colchester Parks and Recreation Derek Mitchell, the station is “the first of its kind” in any of the town’s parks.

“The fact that three sixth graders took initiative to think about the benefits to the community and execute a plan is really impressive,” says Mitchell.

The project began in October of last year, with a class assignment from CMS sixth grade humanities teacher Treg Vroegop. “I challenged them to define a problem,” Vroegop recalls, which led his students to investigate water pollution and present their findings on a poster. Vroegop then helped them narrow their topic down, from water pollution in the world to Lake Champlain to Thayer Beach. “That’s right up your alley,” Vroegop says he told the girls in support.

In addition to regular schoolwork (and just being a kid), the girls proceeded to spend their year organizing bake sales, learning about money and accounting, and proposing their idea to the town. When they approached Mitchell with a request for a place to put their trashcan, Mitchell was so impressed that he offered to match whatever money they raised—one trashcan became a trash and recycling station.

“The length of time they committed to this project was over what was required of a simple school project,” noted Mitchell. “I’m really impressed by the determination and commitment of these girls.”

After a week of rain, Friday morning arrived foggy yet dry. Standing in front of their shiny new waste station, Connor, George, and Anderson used a pair of comically large scissors to cut a blue ribbon held up by Mitchell and CMS principal Michele Cote. Giggling, they then demonstrated the use of the station by depositing a can and some food scraps into each bin. “These may or may not have come from my office,” joked Colchester School District superintendent Amy Minor, also in attendance.

According to Connor, George, and Anderson—all good friends, they confirm—the hardest parts of the project were the bake sales, the amount of planning, and the math. “But we really wanted to make a difference,” says Anderson, the other girls nodding in agreement. “It all started with a poster project. But we thought, what if we turned this poster into something that would really help.”

Connor agrees, explaining how encountering litter at their local beach made the issues of water pollution and cleaning up the environment more real to them.

“We’ve been going to this beach for a long time and sometimes we’ve noticed trash and stuff, but there wasn’t a place for anyone to put it,” she says. Kinder and more eloquent than most middle schoolers, the girls noted that they couldn’t have accomplished their goal without help from their parents, teachers, school, and the town.

What was their favorite thing to make for bake sales? “Everything,” says George, eliciting giggles from her friends. Then on second thought—“brownies.” They all nod in agreement.

While Vroegop posits that it can sometimes be hard for middle schoolers to come up with problems on their own, due to a smaller frame of reference and a still-developing frontal lobe, he notes that his students are extraordinary. “They’re not in the box thinkers,” he says smiling.

Vroegop describes his challenge to the students as part of the school’s shift in teaching from project-based to inquiry-based. “It helps kids to think globally, beyond their community, and about current events,” he says. Part of the goal is to help students connect work in the classroom to real world problems—from a poster about water pollution to the issue of litter and water quality at their local beach.

Mitchell hopes to install more stations like this one at other parks around the town. “It’s a model for future generations,” he said. “It’s a great lesson to see the results of what being involved in your community can accomplish.”