Third-grade students at Winchester Trail Elementary School had a dirty job sifting through trash in the school cafeteria, but they dove in enthusiastically.

Third-grade students at Winchester Trail Elementary School had a dirty job sifting through trash in the school cafeteria, but they dove in enthusiastically.

Five of the 12 third-grade classrooms decided to talk trash last month -- or rather, how to reduce waste and increase recycling for one of their project-based learning lessons.

Teachers Lauren Brooks, Liz Logsdon, Angie Ratliff, Jasmine Smithers, and Kaylin Vanbuskirk took their students to the cafeteria on Feb. 10, gloved, goggled and layered with big old shirts to protect them from the unwanted food items, dirty plastic silverware, and other trash they picked through.

Large tarps were laid out on the floor and the students were assigned to teams.

"We discussed beforehand what they might find in their lunchtime trash and they sorted it into categories, weighed the food waste and counted recyclables that we found in the trash," Smithers said. "It was fun and disgusting and it gave them hands-on experience."

Each student was assigned a job. Some students were diggers, some were sorters, some were counters and some collected the dirty data.

"They all had a lot of background information on recycling, but to see the amount of trash by actually going through - it was very eye-opening to them," Smithers said.

Hailey Boss, 8, said she learned a lot from this smelly lesson.

"I enjoyed actually learning about how much things that are thrown away could be recycled and I did not enjoy the spell of the trash," Boss said.

Collecting the data and doing research produced some surprising results.

"They learned that normally 25 bags are collected each day and all of their eyes got bigger," Smithers said.

"Some of the big ideas gained from the experience dealt with how much food was being wasted and how much food the students were throwing away -- whole apples and whole sandwiches. They were kind of shocked by the amount of food that was being discarded."

Smithers said the students were also surprised by what is not being recycled in their own school.

Currently, the only items recycled in the cafeteria are water bottles.

Jacob McFarland, 9, was a project manager or "leader of the whole team," as he put it.

"I learned that we can do a way better job of recycling instead of just throwing stuff away," McFarland said.

"The third item that arose of their analyzed data was what they could do with food waste and composting came up as an option," Smithers said.

The students are now working on the next phase of the project, which is educating others at Winchester Trail about what they discovered.

Over the course of the rest of the year, the third-graders will be making posters, commercials, and Google presentations to encourage other students to be more discerning about what they decide to toss away and where they place it.

The classes are exploring the possibility of composting on school grounds, ways to reduce the amount of food wasted in the cafeteria, and setting up a plastic and paper recycling program in the cafeteria.

Superintendent Jim Sotlar asked the third-graders during a "town hall" meeting about the project how they could "get what they found to transfer to students next year," Smithers said. "Some want to talk to students at Indian Trail so that when the students come over that they know what is expected of them next year."

But before school ends this year, those who took part in the lunchroom trash excavations are planning to implement some of their ideas and then do another trash-digging day to see if their message has had an effect.

Both McFarland and Boss said they hope the lessons they teach their schoolmates will last.

"I hope to make sure that the school learns to recycle more than they throw away," Boss said.