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Fifth-grader wins Earth Day contest

For a ‘special energy agent,’ goal is change


Skyler Placella is a typical James Vernon Middle School fifth-grader, but for less than a minute he becomes a “special energy agent” in a public service announcement he created with his family. Skyler won first place among 207 videos submitted by fifth- through eighth-grade students in PSEG’s Earth Day Video PSA Contest on April 22.

Skyler, who lives in East Norwich, said he enjoyed creating his PSA, entitled, “Special Energy Agent,” in recognition of Earth Day. “I thought my PSA was going to get picked, because I was very proud of it, and I’m surprised I was right,” the 10-year-old said. “I learned a lot from this. I learned to shut lights off when no one is using them and to unplug stuff if they’re not [being used].

In the PSA, Special Agent Skyler unplugs appliances not in use and turns off lights. Near the end, he takes an incandescent light bulb out of his pants pocket and an LED bulb out of his shirt pocket and explains the benefits of using the latter. Then, saying he no longer needs the incandescent bulb, he throws it over his shoulder, which prompts an admonishment from his (unseen) mother, Jackie. Skyler, worried that he’s in trouble, shares one last benefit — that switching to LED bulbs can save $1,000 over 10 years. Then he says he has to go.

“I got inspired [to make the PSA] because I want to tell the world to use less electricity, fossil fuel and energy,” he said. “I enjoyed the most explaining why you should save energy, and throwing the light bulb behind my head. The hardest part was probably trying to get the right words out of my mouth.”

Vernon students took part in PSEG’s “I AM EM-Powered Program and Student Challenge” for two and a half months. The program, created for PSEG by educational consultant D. Barrett Associates, provides science, technology, engineering and math-related coursework on energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy. Nearly 4,500 students on Long Island and in the Rockaways followed a curriculum tailored for classroom and virtual learning as well as hybrid scenarios. This is the first year that PSEG sponsored the program and contest.

Skyler’s science teacher, Diana Hauser, said her students were highly motivated to participate, because they love contests and using technology. The PSA winners were announced on Earth Day.

Students learned about PSAs by watching videos. Hauser said she encouraged them to select a topic that they felt strongly about. “The kids had to do research, and learned that it’s required for a PSA to have a strong message and that it be short,” she explained. “We introduced the idea at school, and they had to make the PSA at home.”

Suzanne Brienza, PSEG Long Island’s director of customer experience and utility marketing, co-hosted a Zoom event on Earth Day in which the 10 winning videos were shown. “It was so exciting to see these award-winning videos and to announce the 10 winners,” she said. “The students’ messages of protecting our oceans, conserving electricity and using energy-efficient light bulbs are lessons for all of us.”

Hauser said that making a PSA was the type of project that ordinarily would have been done as a group, but because of coronavirus pandemic guidelines, students were encouraged to choose partners instead. Most of them completed the videos themselves, but a few PSAs had siblings involved, and one included an entire family.

Teachers submitted their favorite three videos, which Hauser said wasn’t easy. “I loved all of the videos that my students created,” she said. “It was extremely difficult for me to pick only three from each class. Skyler’s video was almost professional, like ‘Home Alone’-style, and seemed like a commercial on TV.”

Wayne Placella, Skyler’s father, who is a custodian at Vernon, said he and his wife were proud of their son, who, Wayne said, is shy and quiet. Making the PSA was a family affair. “It took us all day to make the PSA because we had so many takes and had to edit it,” Wayne said. “Skyler likes to put videos together, and he was the one who thought of throwing the light bulb.”

Hauser said it is important that children be passionate about environmental conservation. “This project was a great way to excite students to learn more about a topic and then teach and inspire others to make a difference with topics such as energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable resources,” she said. “It’s my hope that the current generation of students will be instrumental in creating a new environmental paradigm.”