Soap making with environmental awareness at MCA

Mount Carmel Academy art teacher Bridget Gillane’s passion for using and making natural bath products has bubbled over into a soap-making project with students in two extracurricular clubs on campus.

“I had always wanted to teach the girls how to do it,” Gillane said, a thought that arose after leading a summer camp elective “Lotions, Potions and Bubbles.” Considering the necessary materials were already on hand, it would be easy to instruct high schoolers.  

When discussing her enthusiasm with religion department chairperson Matt Stevens, who moderates MCA’s Eco Cubs, Gillane said she and Stevens realized they could blend her students in National Art Honor Society with his students in Eco Cubs and create a soap-making venture with an environmental message. 

This resulted in four after-school sessions over the past several months that culminated with the sale of their soap at MCA’s recent Brown Linen Night art show April 25.
Gillane’s role was to show the girls how to make the soap and teach lye safety (active lye can burn skin if not used properly). Stevens would explain the importance of using ingredients from ethical sources – such as palm oil from companies “engaging in more sustainable practices and not just gutting rain forests to keep up with demand.” 
“The art of soap-making and environmental awareness are naturals for both clubs,” Gillane said. 
“Matt introduced sustainability issues surrounding the harvesting of palm and how it compromises orangutan habitats if they don’t do it sustainably,” Gillane said. 
Stevens said he explained how rain forests (often in poorer countries with limited environmental/labor regulations) have been destroyed and turned into palm oil plantations to meet increased demand for cheap palm oil. 
“The larger goal of the course was to plant a seed of realization in our students that being a consumer presents ethical decisions that have real (though often immediately invisible) effects on other people and the environment,” Stevens said.

Student input on soap

Each session began with instruction on the process used – either cold press or “melt and pour” – and then students used their creativity to add an essential oil fragrance or other additives such as lavender, poppy seeds, lemon and natural color dubbed “more of a garnish,” said senior student Imogen Hoffman, a National Art Honor Society member.
“I thought it would be fun to show them the different soap-making processes,” Gillane said. “They are calculating the different ingredients yet still being creative with it.”
The melt and pour process was preferred since it eliminated the protective gloves and goggles needed in the cold press process that used active lye.
“The day we used lye, the girls developed a very healthy and respectful fear of lye, but also understood how instrumental it is to the process in a way that can’t be described in a classroom setting,” Stevens said. 
Students learned how precise the science of soap-making is and how fun it was to work together with others from another club.
“This is the first event of its kind,” Hoffman said. “Usually, the (art) club does an art piece; we’ve never done anything like this, combining math and science. You had to measure. The decorating and making (different) soap is the art. It’s fun teaming up with the Eco Cubs. You’d never think of the art and Eco Cubs teaming up.”

Sold at art show

The art project conducted in a “lab-like setting” produced 60 bars that were sold at the annual Brown Linen Night. Students had liberty in how they presented and marketed the soap for sale, wrapping it in recycled paper made by the Eco Cubs. Proceeds went to the Gulf Coast Restoration Network and the Harry Tompson Center for the homeless on St. Joseph Church’s campus in New Orleans.  
“This is a service project for the clubs,” Gillane said. “They are not keeping any of the soap. They are literally giving their time for others’ benefit.”

In addition, the project empowered the girls to know they can be more than consumers.
“I mean we just buy things our whole lives: soap, shampoo, granola, cleaning supplies, furniture,” Stevens said. “We never really trust ourselves that average people can make these things. We’ve forgotten that we aren’t just consumers, but that we can be producers. … I saw them leave the room glowing and telling their friends, ‘I just made soap. Like just now, I made it!’”
Stevens said he is open to future collaboration.
“We joked about it a little, because while you often hear of cross-curricular projects, it’s rarer to have two seemingly different clubs collaborate. We coined a new word, “Cross-CLUBrricular.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at

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