This article is cross-posted on Environmental Leader.
The educational system in the United States once ranked among the best in the world, but the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) most recent statistics show the US produced only average proficiency scores when compared against other countries in science, reading, and math. We now have a unique opportunity to regain our practice of effective teaching and prepare our youth for a rapidly changing future by incorporating environmental sustainability and social responsibility into all aspects of our educational system.
The current paradigm which pushes businesses and people to do more with less, and at increasing speeds, is transforming into a model aligned with the laws of nature. In this new world there is virtually no waste and people and planet are treated as more than raw materials, they are honored as the fabric of life itself. In order to make the transition, our youth must be exposed to and educated on whole systems thinking with the natural world as the ultimate guide. While a handful of school districts, private institutions, and universities are making great progress, many continue to teach more or less as they have for years.
A positive example for how to develop sustainability pedagogy can be found at The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education. This New York City based non-profit has developed a holistic approach that involves the individual student along with his or her classroom, school, and community. Known as Education for Sustainability (EfS), this learner-centered method works with the primary influences in the lives of students, knowing that true, long-term change is most easily attained when nearly all major influences support the new vision. The idea that a person’s surroundings will have to transform in order to support the much needed true shift in our cultural values is a powerful concept and exactly what will be required. Just as important is the Cloud Institute’s distinction as to the focus of their work. They are involved in “educating for sustainability, rather than about sustainability.”
Founded in 1995, the Cloud Institute offers a variety of services designed to enable sustainability, including long-term consulting, teacher workshops, and curriculum development. A great example of their work can be seen in The TerraCycle Curriculum Series. Lesson plans, story books, and student handouts are free to download and provide ready to use materials for educators. The Natural Laws and Principles of the Materials Cycle curriculum uses a story, Where Do Apples Go, to explain what happens to organic and non-organic material when thrown on the ground outside. The Healthy Commons program introduces children to the concept of shared resources, such as air, water, and community parks and begins to explore the responsibility we all have for these communal necessities of life.
While organizations like The Cloud Institute are focused solely on educating for sustainability, others include environmental protection as one piece of a larger mission. The Marion Institute works with communities, schools, and individuals on green economics and environmental education in addition to health, healing, and spirituality. They have launched four Seed to Table programs that link classroom experiences with the time children spend in the garden. The Marion Institute also aids schools in developing composting programs and providing field trip opportunities to visit local farms and green industries.
Sustainability field trips of another kind will soon be possible at Enclave Harbor. This well-designed virtual world has a variety of alternative energy and environmental science activities from solar-powered cargo blimps to tidal turbines and even a landfill. A workbook guides students through life, earth, and physical science virtual field trips with a focus on sustainability.
One well known real world school that has incorporated sustainability in a variety of ways is Phillips Exeter Academy. They developed an environmental mission statement in 2004 and, in 2005, fourteen staff members participated in a four-day workshop to learn how to infuse their teaching with environmental education. Today Phillips Exeter offers eight courses with a strong sustainability focus that cover topics ranging from English to science to religion. Students also have the opportunity to leave campus and explore sustainability in the larger world. Available programs are based in the mountains of Vermont; in Callan, Ireland; and at The Island School in the Bahamas.
While on campus, students who are interested can become Environmental Proctors. E-Proctors, as they are known, have a variety of responsibilities, including educating their fellow dorm mates on energy efficiency and conservation along with placing the composting pail outside the building each morning for pickup. Charging youth with these types of responsibilities has numerous advantages. The E-Proctors gain valuable experiences championing and managing environmental initiatives by promoting and supporting sustainability measures to their peers. Challenging students to live a life full of green measures solidifies important environmental habits, such as composting and turning off lights, preparing the Phillips Exeter community for stewardship of the natural world long after graduation.
Today, youth who are interested in sustainability have the opportunity to further their studies in both undergrad and graduate programs. Many traditional business colleges include triple bottom line course work and there has been a steady increase in “green MBAs.” The Presidio Graduate School offers both an MBA and MPA in Sustainable Management. Their integration of sustainability into every course ensures students are steeped in environmental and social responsibility. Being surrounded by green class work and real-life examples of sustainability in action allows students to become business leaders that see the world in new way.
The promise of sustainability education is a well trained, insightful workforce that views the natural world as a precious resource and all people as worthy of fair and equal participation in the global economy. If our nation looks to the examples of sustainability education currently in use and invests time and money into incorporating these holistic, whole systems ideals into a redesigned teaching model, our lagging educational system will begin to produce results that will benefit the entire world.