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A Capital Idea: Bottle Caps as Educational Material

You could become passionate about reusing bottle caps if you spend time with charismatic West Chester education professor Donna Sanderson. With the help of WCU education majors, Sanderson has been collecting, cleaning, sorting and labeling the plastic caps from milk jugs, juice and soft drinks, to be repurposed as learning aids in local classrooms.

Once washed, dried and sorted by color, each cap gets a circular label on which volunteers print a letter, a single-digit number, or a mathematical symbol. The "cap kits," packaged in clear plastic zip bags, each contain 126 caps along with an instruction manual or DVD. Sanderson distributes kits free to local elementary schools and child care centers.

These small educational tools "are hands-on, sensory learning materials" that make a big impact in children's literacy, reading and math skills, she says. It's partly their simplicity that makes the cap kits effective, allowing teacher, parent and child to invent learning games to play solo or as part of a group.

Her key to the project's success is West Chester students. Senior Lisa McMahon fanned the spark of an idea Sanderson mentioned in one of her early grades preparation courses into a flame. The rest of the class supported the idea by volunteering their time. Now, for each of the past three semesters, a dozen or more education majors have enthusiastically spent their evenings labeling, counting, sorting and zipping the completed caps and their resource guides into plastic bags.

Sanderson and her students provide free instruction on the use of the cap kits – as well as how to make the kits -- to teachers and parents. The training is important, she says, so the adults understand "how to help the children use these materials correctly and creatively."

McMahon is an Honors College student majoring in early grades preparation. She is minoring in communication studies and, like many of the students working on the caps project, in Spanish. Their language skills are put to good use when they present caps workshops to ESL and English Language Learner (ELL) programs.

At Fern Hill Elementary, ELL teacher Christine Miller expressed her appreciation for a workshop by Sanderson, noting that the WCU students were "very professional and thoughtful in their interactions with the children and parents … [and] flexible in quickly adapting activities to meet the needs" of individual children. Each family at that event, most of whom were low-income, received a cap kit.

Sanderson points out that not everyone has access to a computer and these very basic kits fill a need for in-class learning resources at these and other sites such as domestic violence centers and literacy programs. Not only can parents use the kits at home to reinforce and enhance skills learned in school but sometimes a child might help their parent learn English.

The benefits of the caps kits are diverse: they are developmentally appropriate for a variety of age groups and grades; the exercises support the state's Pre-K core standards; the project enhances the teacher/candidate dynamic. One of Sanderson's students even said she'd bring a kit to job interviews to show future employers the creativity she can bring to their school.

An added bonus, Sanderson says: "The caps come free with a drink, they aren't recyclable, and now they'll stay out of the landfill."

Her creativity earned Sanderson this year's E. Riley Holman Award "for innovative teaching and fostering student creativity." She was also named an Educator 500 in 2013.

In February, Sanderson visited four elementary schools in Costa Rica where she met with school directors, conducted teacher training, and distributed WCU T-shirts and caps kits. The children there took quickly to the caps activities, even translating English and Spanish words with their guest.

"One of my personal goals is to spread the program," Sanderson says, "and now, because of talking with teachers and presenting at conferences, cap kits are being used in Costa Rica, Honduras, the Bahamas, and Malawi, Africa. Good ideas spread when you are passionate about what you do -- and I am!"

For more about the caps project.