04/19/2011 09:21 am ET Updated Jun 19, 2011

Add Trash to the Curriculum?

Looking out my living room window, I see five large trash receptacles on the four corners of the intersection of 3rd Avenue and 79th Street that our east side Manhattan apartment overlooks. And, probably as a consequence, there's very little garbage on the street and sidewalk.

In fact, most intersections in my neighborhood seem to have a trashcan on each corner, something I have been aware of -- and grateful for -- when I walk our yellow Lab in the morning and at night.

But when I was visiting a school in the South Bronx last week, I couldn't help but notice that sidewalks and streets were littered and there weren't very many public trash receptacles. Just one per intersection, not the four (or five) in my neighborhood.

Now, a couple of casual sightings and an anecdote do not constitute data, but this is a great opportunity for social studies teachers to use technology to enliven their classes, energize their students, and perhaps provide real life lessons in how cities distribute resources.

Here's what I envision: Working in teams for efficiency and safety, middle school kids could use a phone's camera to "map" their neighborhood intersections with photos that answer one question: is there a trash can on the corner? Share the data, and not just with classmates but with other middle school classes around the city.

(I live in New York and took these photos with my phone, but this could be done in cities everywhere.)

Will patterns emerge? Do well-to-do neighborhoods like mine have many more places for residents to put bags of dog poop and other garbage? And are those streets cleaner?

A more complex project would involve determining just how often those trash receptacles are emptied, but that could be done with the cooperation of local businesses or apartment doormen.

My hunch is the students will find that this resource (call it "cleanliness opportunities") is unevenly distributed, but is it by income or some other criterion? At this point, students will probably have questions for urban leaders, another valuable exercise in learning. They may discover that leaders don't like to have their established practices scrutinized, but that's tough. After all, we are supposed to be preparing youth for life in a democracy. What could be better than actual participation?

Calling this a "trashcan curriculum" is both inelegant and inaccurate. I need help with the former, but here's why it's inaccurate: There are many other small but real issues to dig into. For example, the state of Texas has about 4,000 miles of fast-running water (I'm not counting "turtles" like the Rio Grande here). I think that every high school class within reach of one of those rivers ought to be going to the water's edge and taking measurements of acidity, alkalinity, speed, amount of detritus and so forth. Analyze the data. Share the results with other high school students around the state. Where there are anomalies, dig deeper. Ask for explanations. Publish the results.

Maybe this curriculum is really not about trash cans and rivers, but about democracy. Practicing democracy is necessary, because it's not a natural act.

It would teach other lessons as well: information is power, collaboration produces strength, social policies have consequences, and they themselves are not merely numbers or test scores but sentient, thinking individuals with potential. They matter.

If administrators object to these "field trips," then kids should measure air quality instead. That's something students can do on the steps of their schools, and the shared data might raise a lot of interesting questions.

Technology makes all this possible, but I think it's imperative on at least two levels. For one thing, much schoolwork today is hopelessly boring regurgitation, whereas this is real work in uncharted territory. For another, we need our young people to be in the habit of asking questions and searching for answers.

I am sure other "units" belong in this trashcan/river/democracy curriculum. Perhaps some teachers have already been down this road. Please share your thoughts here.