A New Kind of Princess

by Emily Donohue on December 10, 2013

(Photo: John Killings / Rensselaer Union)

The princesses on campus last weekend weren’t waiting around in a tower to be rescued by a prince. They weren’t tripping over their own glass slippers on the way home from a fancy ball. And they certainly weren’t sleeping, waiting for a magical kiss to wake them.

These princesses — Eco Princesses, actually — were all about action. They learned about sustainable energy and recycling, composting, and water pollution. They learned that while they may only be pretend princesses (or princes, as the case may be) they really can be masters of their own universe.

More than 60 people — children in grades kindergarten through 5 and their parents — attended the Eco Princess Festival at the Rensselaer Union Saturday, Dec. 7. The festival was planned and executed by Adrienne Wilson, who is about to complete a co-terminal program, with her bachelor’s degree in Design, Innovation, and Society and her master’s degree in Ecological Economics, Values, and Policy. Both programs are in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences’ Department of Science and Technology Studies.

She conceived the idea — a riff on the Princess Festival held in Utah annually that is geared toward character education — earlier this year and gained approval to plan and execute the event as part of a required internship class.

The idea was simple: harness the affection young girls already have for princesses with a royal quest that introduces important lessons about sustainability.

Harnessing the power of princesses, rather than trying to push away from it, was a crucial aspect for Wilson.

“There have been a lot of social media campaigns and other things that try to shun that image — a girl shouldn’t try to be pretty, a girl shouldn’t try to be like those kind of Disney princesses — and I don’t think they’re very effective. I feel like if you want to make a difference, you should change the idea rather than trying to completely get rid of it,” Wilson said. “So I thought this would be more effective, girls are going to like princesses no matter what.”

(Photos: John Killings / Rensselaer Union)

She also thinks that many of them will like science and math no matter what, as long as they’re introduced to the concepts early enough. Environmental education is a proven pathway to get young children interested in all the STEM subjects, she said. Using real world problems also helps garner interest, “so kids can say ‘this is how school can be applied in real life.’ ”

At one stage of the quest, the Little Mermaid taught students about water pollution and then asked them to count the jellyfish visible in an undersea image. It was a trick question, however, because many of the “jellyfish” were in fact plastic bags polluting the water.

One of Wilson’s challenges was ensuring there was material suitable for students in all elementary grade levels. Another was balancing entertainment with education. Rather than attempt to mask the education with fun, her goal was for “the kids to realize that learning is fun.”

Wilson, who took a waitressing job in order to finance the event, had the help of more than 30 volunteers. Fellow students with expertise in sustainability topics donned the costumes of Disney princesses and guided children through the educational quest.

Read more about Wilson’s Eco Princess Festival from the Times Union and see more photos from the event.

[Update 12/11/13: The New York Times published a series of commentaries in its Room for Debate section today that relate to engaging students in STEM. The ideas presented are varied, but one piece in particular echoes the reasoning that led Adrienne Wilson to utilize princesses in her presentations on sustainability. Mayam Bialik, a neuroscientist who also happens to star in The Big Bang Theory, writes that STEM concepts can be presented to students by harnessing popular culture — using zombies as a pathway to understanding exponential growth curves and superheroes to understand concepts in physics, for example. Read Bialik’s piece and commentary from other experts here.]