Nerves were stretched to breaking point. Some students looked green around the gills. Some muttered their presentations under their breath in preparation. Others had steely looks of confidence in their eyes while teachers herded their charges for last minute pep talks. The Emirates Environmental Group's (EEG) Eighth Inter-School Public Speaking Competition was underway and each of the 92 schools competing was determined to win.
"Have you ever wondered how the world will be in 100 years? Some people say it will be run by technology and all the latest gadgets, but will we get that far? Will people change their ways?" asked contestant Katayoun Hefzollah Eslam of Dubai National School.
She and more than 20 students spoke on the Our World in 100 Years topic category, many predicting that it would be a dying wasteland due to the abuse it has sustained for centuries.
Asad Ahmad of Star International School Sharjah painted a frightening picture of the future where water was critically scarce.
In Ahmad's world people's salaries were paid in water and the major companies were desalination plants. People paid a tax to breath air, women and men had to shave their heads so they didn't need to wash their hair, 50-year-olds looked like 85-year-olds because of dehydration and the crime rate was so high you could be mugged for a mere cup of water.
"We are constantly warned but do we listen? No, we are too busy with our wasteful activities," said Ahmad.
Some students painted a fantastic world of robotic surgery, clean energy, extended human life, improvements in education and a highly technological lifestyle.
Saving our seas
The future of our seas was an issue close to student Mina Mohit's heart.
The Arab Unity School student called for the public to be aware of the products they buy when shopping or dining. She encouraged people to be aware of where their local supermarkets or restaurants sourced their seafood and thus ensure they were not eating endangered species.
She also expressed her concern over nets and plastics being disposed of in the sea.
Nadine Ahmad of Al Mawakeb School Al Barsha focused on the global demand for oil and its impact on the sea.
"People seem to care extensively about importing and exporting oil but neglect the consequences that come along. The increased global demand for oil has had a knock-on effect in the region to produce higher quantities of oil and has left many species threatened – birds, plankton, coral reefs and seaweed," she said.
Ahmad added that garbage dumping, oil pollution and over-fishing were all threats to the sustainability of the ocean.
Overuse of plastic
"Are we living in a plastic world? One might say that we depend so much on this synthetic that we are unknowingly suffocating our planet," said Seaon Shin, a student at Deira International School, Dubai.
"Have you ever stopped to consider the abundance of plastic that is wrapped into our daily lives? Plastic is a necessity but also a burden," she said.
She added that the material takes more than 1,000 years to decompose and suggested people remember the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle.
The student suggested that governments strictly enforce new policies that regulate packaging material so as to reduce waste. Recycling was essential, she said. "One man's junk is another man's treasure and there are many possibilities to reuse plastics."
Shin added that schools should all have recycling bins.
Khushboo Khubchandani from Our Own English High School, Dubai, discussed the myriad possibilities for recycled plastics — from plastic roads to plastic curbs, bridges, park benches and ornaments. She said that Dubai alone dumps 7.3 million kilos of plastic into the ocean annually.
Khubchandani warned people about the danger to health that plastics pose. Despite its many advantages it remains perilous. She informed students that plastics could contain harmful chemicals, be carcinogenic, cause bronchitis, asthma, reproductive disorders and skin irritation among other health problems.
Animals' lives are also endangered when they mistake plastic for food.
Shin and Khubchandani encouraged the youth to become involved in recycling and environmental awareness campaigns.
They highlighted the Gulf News No to Plastic Bags initiative, Dubai Municipality's My Bag My Earth campaign, and supermarkets initiatives to introduce alternatives to plastic bags and reduce the number of bags customers use.
Aadit Kinjal Zaveri of Dubai Modern High School started preparing for the competition as soon as he heard about it in April.
Zaveri and his team members did a lot of research and had help from their parents and family friends, who gave them feedback on the presentation.
The 13-year-old is no stranger to public speaking, having participated in similar events and class debates in the past. "But this is the first time I'm participating in something this big," he said.
Zaveri's English teacher, Trafford Gregory, was at the event to lend moral support and said the school actively took part in debates and public speaking.
Teacher Raeda Mohammad from Al Dhafra Private School, Abu Dhabi, said her students had worked hard for the competition. "They spent about a month making the PowerPoint slides, looking up information, rehearsing the presentation and building their self-confidence," she said.
Mohammad said her students were slightly nervous before the event "but I told them not to panic; show them [judges] what you can and that's it".
For winners in the Our World in a Hundred Years category, the recipe for success was no secret. "We are overjoyed. We've been working hard for this for a month and it's paid off," said team leader and presenter Pranav Mathew Cherian of The Millennium School, Dubai.
Cherian and his team are active members of Round Square — a worldwide organisation of schools on five continents that participate in community service, work projects, exchange programmes and adventure trips — in an effort to help the environment.
Their teacher and coach, Santanu Paul, said his student gave up all their vacation days and came to school every day to practise. "There was a lot of writing, rewriting, practise, heartbreak, scolding but in the end I'm really happy for them," he said.
The judges paid close attention to the time that the students took to make their speeches. Points were deducted for exceeding the seven-minute time limit and for teams that merely read out their presentations. Clarity of speech and quality of research were important.
Dr Ahmad Mohammad Abdul Hadi of Abu Dhabi University said the event was a good opportunity for young students to express themselves in relation to the community and the environment. Other organisations should follow the EEG's example he said.
"There are a number of students who have done very well. I did not expect such good presentations. They were above my expectations," he added.
Dr Mama Chacha from the Industrial Engineering Department at ALHOSN University, Abu Dhabi, described the event as formidable because it brought together students from various backgrounds at an early age to show what they were capable of.
Dr Adnan Husnéin, also from ALHOSN University, said the event instilled confidence in students and gave them an opportunity to reflect on what they were learning and communicate it to a larger audience.
"Kudos goes to EEG for bringing all these students to a venue such as this and giving them a platform to engage ideas and to hear each other. Rarely do you find students being able to meet under one roof – it's wonderful and sets an example for the rest of the educational institutions," he said.
Husnéin added that it was important to promote environmental and ecological studies in the curriculum. He said: "Hopefully students are going to go back and with their teachers learn the value of raising awareness about the environment and integrating this concept of environmental protection into their curriculum".
Help reduce use of plastic
What you can do:
- Support supermarkets and stores that encourage shoppers to reduce their consumption of plastic bags. Some supermarkets recycle plastic bags, so you can return plastic bags to them.
- Support environmental campaigns in your area. Gulf News is currently engaged in a Say No To Plastic Bags campaign; the Dubai Municipality has its My Bag My Earth campaign and organisations such as the Emirates Environmental Group are constantly conducting awareness programmes.
- Buy alternatives to plastic bags such as jute bags or net bags for shopping.
- Purchase products made of recycled plastic and minimal packaging.
- Give old plastic toys to charity to minimise pollution.
- Reuse plastic bags as bin liners.
- At home separate your waste into plastic, cans, paper and glass and recycle them.
- Scrunch plastic bags up to wrap and cushion items when packing, as an alternative to bubble wrap.
- Don't throw away plastic bags; use them in the garden to hold your grass cuttings and hedge trimmings before transfer to a compost bin.
- You can also use plastic bags when packing for a holiday to keep dirty or wet clothes and shoes away from dry clothing.
- Re-use washed zip-lock bags for sandwiches and snacks rather than plastic wrap.
Platform for youngsters
The Emirates Environmental Group's Eighth Inter-School Environmental Public Speaking Competition was held to commemorate Earth Day, which fell on April 22.
The two-day event was held under the patronage of Dr Hanif Hassan, Minister of Education, and attracted more than 600 high school students and guests with 92 participating teams from schools across the UAE.
The bilingual competition had nearly 30 per cent of the participating schools presentations.
Students in the sub-senior (12-15 years) group spoke on two topics: Our World in 100 Years and Our Seas Our Future, while seniors (16-18 years) spoke about Living in a Plastic World and Clean Energy: 21st Century Trend.
"Public speaking is an important event for the youth. As an educator, you know that many problems in our fast-paced society arise, not because we don't know the answers but because we cannot communicate effectively," said EEG Executive Committee Member Sara Baker who spoke on behalf of EEG chairwoman Habiba Al Marashi.
"The best time to teach people to talk and think is when they are young," she added.
She said the aim of the event was to enhance the level of know-how and public responsibility on environmental issues by creating awareness in students' early years to mould informed citizens of the future.
Agents of change
Every Friday grade 12 student Neeraja Sankar spends an hour or so collecting plastic bags from neighbours in her apartment building in Bur Dubai. She then takes the lot to a nearby recycling bin.
While stopping by her neighbours' homes, she takes a moment to chat about the disadvantages of using plastic bags and urges them to purchase jute bags or reusable ones.
The teenager, who goes to Our Own English High School, Dubai, is not paid for this service she provides and it is often a thankless job.
So why do it? "It's simply my love for the earth that keeps me going," she says.
Sankar was motivated to do something for the environment about a year ago when she found out about a recycling campaign run by the Art of Living Foundation, a non-governmental organisation set up by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
Campaigns such as Gulf News' No to Plastic Bags and Dubai Municipality's My Bag, My Earth have also spurred her to action.
Her school friends recently joined her efforts in collecting plastic waste. So far they have collected about 100kg of plastic bags.
Encouraging people to change their habits has not been easy for the group. "In the beginning people were appreciative and supportive but as time went on, the support has waned," said Sankar.
She said residents found it unhygienic to keep plastic waste for an entire week before she collected it. "It's not possible for me to collect it every day and people end up putting their plastic in the garbage."
Nevertheless the teenager is trying to get more recycling bins in her neighbourhood so that people can take the initiative to recycle their own waste.
Meet Seaon Shin and Ania Tarazi of Deira International School, Dubai, who have established a school-based environmental club called Ecubed, or e3, which stands for "emancipating everyone's earth".
The students, with some support from their teachers, run several activities at their school that all aim to increase awareness about recycling.
"We have set up recycling bins, sponsored by Oasis paper mills, in our schools to encourage parents and students to think about the environment and make it easier for them to recycle," said Shin.
She added that small bins for plastic bottles and paper were also kept in classrooms and a competition is held each month where the winning class gets thrown a pizza party.
The twosome has also conducted fundraisers to collect money for more recycling bins.
"Now we're trying to branch out into Universal American School, (a sister school in the Dubai Festival City area). We went there recently, told them what we are doing and gave them ideas about how they could also recycle and raise money."
- To find out more about Ecubed visit www.e3cubed.org.
- Winner: Abeer Fadil Mustafa Fakhreddine of Al Salam Private School, Dubai.
- First runner up: Manar Sa'ad Al Deen Ebrahim of Al Wehda Secondary School, Abu Dhabi
- Second runner up: Noor Al Khateeb of Umm Amar School for Secondary Education, Ras Al Khaimah
Topic winners: Our World in 100 years
- Winner: Pranav Mathew Cherian of The Millennium School, Dubai
- First Runner Up: Asad Ahmad of Star International School, Sharjah
- Second Runner Up: Laila Van Rooyen of Uptown Primary School, Dubai.
Our Seas — Our Future
- Winner: Abeer Fadil Mustafa Fakhreddine of Al Salam Private School, Dubai
- First Runner Up: Anindita Datta of Our Own English High School, Dubai
- Second Runner Up: Mina Mohit of Arab Unity School, Dubai
Living in a Plastic World
- Winner: Manar Sa'ad Al Deen Ebrahim of Al Wehda Secondary School, Abu Dhabi
- First Runner Up: Khushboo Khubchandani of Our Own English High School, Dubai
- Second Runner Up: Seaon Shin of Deira International School, Dubai
Clean Energy – 21st Century Trend
- Winner: Noor Al Khateeb of Umm Amar School for Secondary Education, Ras Al Khaimah
- First Runner Up: Mohammad Salem of Al Rams School for Secondary Education, Ras Al Khaimah
- Second Runner Up: Esraa Jamal Abdul Latif Mohammad of Sumaya Bent Khayat School, Dubai