Arian Milliken and Areli Aguilar could barely stand still in front of their brightly colored presentation.

Their tri-fold, upright, cardboard display was a panorama of vibrant and abstract watercolor, facts about ocean pollution, problem-solving tips and one superhero — Ocean Girl.

The two jumping-up-and-down Green Park Elementary School students were among dozens of children at Reid Center at Whitman College on Thursday as part of the “Youth Global Climate Summit,” presented by students from Walla Walla Public Schools’ 21st Century Community Learning Centers.

The after-school program for elementary grades offers numerous activities, from robotics to cooking, plus homework help, said Director Brent Cummings.

Creating a public event was a chance for students to first learn and then show off some new skills, Cummings said today.

Yes, the topic was environmental challenges the world over, but the real goal was to teach young Walla Walla students how to question, research like a scientist, think critically and use local resources.

The four-week period from start to finish was an example of project-based learning and took a lot of planning to bring to fruition. To that end, Cummings and his four school site directors collaborated with Walla Walla Public Library to bring research-worthy books of differing reading levels to the schools.

The library responded with such enthusiasm, it was a boon to the entire effort, Cummings said.

“It was a huge benefit to us … it was instrumental to our success.”

The children at the summit at Reid Center probably didn’t know all the ingredients baked into the evening, but they could definitely see the sprinkles on top.

Not only was there a table of hot and cold appetizers, but the atmosphere in the ballroom was electric.

As younger siblings zoomed around the floor, students proudly showed their displays to their parents and other observers.

Matthew Bangs was munching from his plate of fragrant finger foods as he looked over his son Sebastian’s project about greenhouse gases.

“I think it’s awesome,” Bangs said.

“It’s good for kids to be learning how to do research, how to dive into a topic.”

Roger Contreras, the after-school site director at Blue Ridge Elementary School, was everywhere in tending his flock of 12 participating students.

Initially, the topic of this project went over the heads of the fourth- and fifth-graders in his program, Contreras said. When the public librarians came in and talked about how to use books to find answers, a fire was lit, he said.

“They really started buying in. Their dedication to this project … I’m really proud of their work. They learned scientific research and now they do know about climate challenges.”

Areli, 10, and Arian, 9, were eager to teach what they’d learned.

“Our teacher talked to us about climate change, and we read a lot of books,” Arian said.

“And we found it online,” Areli said.

The girls said they knew a bit before immersing themselves in the research, but they now know much more.

“We want to show how bad it’s getting. Some people think throwing away plastic is fine,” Arian said, with a sweeping gesture at the cardboard display.

“We are hoping some people can look at this and decide they can stop throwing away trash.”

Cummings said despite the short timeline for this summit, it all came together to fit the vision.

“The feedback we got from parents was overwhelmingly positive. For some, it was their first time at the college.”

His staff could see the smiles that evening, the value of the event mirrored in the interest shown by the adults, Cummings said.

And while the project promoted a deep-level learning, kids will be kids — the students reported loving the special evening and showing off their skills best of all, Cummings said.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.