World Environment Day – Putting the Earth at the Centre of Education is Essential to our Survival

“Every ocean is suffering from plastic pollution. In Greenland our main industry is fishing, which means there is a huge loss of fishing nets. My project is handling the problem of what to do with the nets after they have been brought back to the shore.”

Nuiana, a student at Atlantic College near Cardiff, tells me about the social action project she is leading to ‘clean up the ocean, one cup at a time’. It’s part of an innovative programme to help current students design and lead projects that make a real difference in their home communities.

Nuiana continues: “Greenland doesn’t have a recycling system. My project is up-cycling the high-grade materials from fishing nets and giving them a new purpose. They will be cleaned, shredded and melted into plastic tubes and remoulded into cool travel cups.”

This is so much more than designing a poster or sitting in the classroom learning about recycling. As Francois, the former student who leads this work puts it “young people are eager to make sense of their lives. If you are able to tap into the potential of changemaking, they discover an amazing sense of resilience, drive and ingenuity”.

Edge’s mission is all about making education relevant through exciting real life projects. This shows the potential that the environment and climate crisis have to provide that spark.

The focus on creating a new generation of changemakers is at the heart of work being done worldwide by one of Edge’s amazing partners, Ashoka. Their commitment to help every child become a changemaker has already had profound impacts in other education systems, like Brazil, and we are supporting their network of Changemaker Schools to start that revolution here in the UK too.

We need to move on from polarised debates and recognise that education, like the wider world, is much more connected and holistic. So this World Environment Day, it’s time to realise that environmental education is not an either/or. It can provide the rich real-life context that helps to bring children’s learning alive – fulfilling Edge’s mission to make education more relevant at every stage.

Another of Edge’s key partners, Bob Lenz, CEO of PBLWorks, has written eloquently about how Project Based Learning, now more than ever, can help us to meet the challenge of education in the post-pandemic world – “it’s truly a means of keeping kids engaged in learning and growing now, and a key to fostering the creativity, initiative, and resilience they’ll need to thrive in our rapidly changing world.”

Bob is absolutely right and the environment, sustainability and the climate crisis are some of the issues that young people today care most about and will most effectively light their fire. What is more, the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about – we need a new generation of young people thinking about “we” not “me” as they address the climate crisis they are inheriting.

When we spoke to celebrated columnist and author George Monbiot, he encouraged all of us to be bold “This is the time for a Great Reset. Let’s use it to change the way we see ourselves and our place on Earth…I would like to see schools placing ecology and Earth systems at the heart of learning.”

Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, wholeheartedly agreed as part of our campaign: “We have a responsibility to educate for a future in which life on Earth can thrive by placing climate and ecological understanding at the heart of every curriculum.”

You may worry that parents and teachers don’t agree, but you’d be wrong. New figures published by Edge and YouGov* show that more than two thirds of parents surveyed (68%) agreed that protecting the planet should be given a higher priority in education – rising to almost three-quarters (74%) of younger parents (aged 25-34). These views were echoed by three-quarters of teachers surveyed (75%), rising to more than four-fifths (81%) of younger teachers surveyed (aged 25-34).

Businesses are pushing in the same direction too, with 200 leading UK firms urging the government this week to deliver a COVID-19 recovery plan that prioritises the environment.

We already know what exciting opportunities are possible when we blend project-based learning with real environmental context.
Eden Project Learning, which Edge supported to set up in 2014, offers a specialist portfolio of higher education courses and apprenticeships taught on site in the Eden biomes. The team take their amazing expertise on the road too, with support from our 2018-19 Grant Fund allowing them to encourage young people in local secondary schools to study STEM subjects by building a love of horticulture.

As Professor Robert Barratt, who led Eden Project Learning from 2017-2020 says: ‘It’s amazing to see young people working alongside world class experts in our unique biomes – seeing their passion ignited by working on some of the most pressing issues for our planet is truly inspirational’.

At XP School in Doncaster, meanwhile, nature and the environment are frequently the inspiration for their highly interactive learning expeditions.  Pupils looking at the driving question ‘how can we harness the power of the wind?’ designed turbine blades with an optimal shape for maximising wind power. Focusing on the question ‘what is my impact on the world around me?’, they took Field Notes from a Catastrophe as their anchor text and focused on biodiversity in local ecosystems.

Down the road in Sheffield, colleagues at the David & Jane Richards Family Foundation have supported the installation of beehives in schools and colleges across the city, creating interactive and stimulating environments for young people to learn about ecology and nature. Most importantly, the schools are encouraged to incorporate beekeeping as the context into a range of different subjects and projects from design and technology to maths.

At Edge, we believe in making education more relevant by helping students to solve exciting real-world problems. The environment is the context for our every day lives. It’s the key issue on the minds of young people. This World Environment Day it should become the essential context for education, helping to bring alive real projects and social action to create a new generation of changemakers. 

(* Polling results are taken from YouGov and Edge, Parents and COVID-19 and Teachers and COVID-19 (May 2020). Total sample size for the parent survey was 4,671 UK adults, of which 1,050 were parents with children aged 18 or under. Fieldwork was undertaken between 15th - 19th May 2020. The figures for the parent survey have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+). Total sample size for the teacher survey was 502 teachers. Fieldwork was undertaken between 15th - 18th May 2020.  Both surveys were carried out online.)

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