PHARR – Students at Buell Central Discipline Alternative Education Program in Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD (PSJA), are getting the opportunity to gain invaluable skills from project-based learning projects focused on sustainability and conservation efforts.

Inspired by the need to educate youth and raise awareness about green efforts, the campus initiative aims to teach students about sustainability and encourages them to become better citizens. From aquaponics and hydroponics to vertical gardening and hydro-solar panels, PSJA students at Buell Central are submerged in unique project-based learning (PBL) activities directly tied to the curriculum.

Most recently, the school district acquired four military Hummers that students will be using to study clean energy alternatives such as the conversion of restaurant oil into biodiesel. As defined by the U.S. Department of Energy, biodiesel is a domestically produced, renewable fuel that can be manufactured from vegetable oils, animal fats or recycled restaurant grease for use in diesel vehicles as a cleaner-burning alternative.

According to PSJA Buell Central Principal Mario Bracamontes, the biodiesel lesson will be directly connected to the curriculum and will coincide with the district's aim to emphasize diesel mechanics.

"The military vehicles are for instructional purposes," said Bracamontes. "We are probably the only school in the state and nation with all these hands-on learning opportunities focused on sustainability."

Due to the hazards of having students handle flammable liquids, PSJA ISD plans to partner with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley to designate a facility where the bio-diesel can be safely produced. According to Bracamontes, the conversion of used vegetable oil into biodiesel will be possible thanks to donations from local restaurants such as Chic-fil-A and Copper Moon Bar & Grill, to name a few.

These efforts are already gaining statewide and national attention from local and public figures. Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush toured the campus and observed numerous student presentations of their project-based learning initiatives on Thursday, March 1.

"This campus is one shining example of turning around lives not only in the Rio Grande Valley, but throughout the state," said Commissioner Bush during his visit. "These kids are examples of how they are outperforming their peers and helping make Texas competitive."

For Frida Hinojosa, a freshman at Buell Central, getting to present and participate in the hands-on activities has helped her gain confidence and has motivated her to keep working hard.

"It's great to have opportunities and to know that mistakes do not define us," said Hinojosa.