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Finding a Role for Schools and Students in Climate Action

As a mother of two young students finding their way in a rapidly changing world, I am keen to encourage the next generation to take an informed, and proactive role in tackling the climate challenges our societies face.

As a business founder and consultant in the field of building efficiency, my job is to help convey the business case for taking a sustainable approach in buildings when possible. I strongly believe there are ways to give children a proactive role in delivering sustainable solutions to tasks in their daily lives, in school and at home, that are practical and prepare them for the realities of the modern working environment.

I know from first-hand experience that many Corporations are either unable or unwilling to fully embrace sustainability as a fundamental tenet of their business strategy for various reasons. However, the challenge in front of us through the transition to a lower carbon intensity world, is that we need a workforce with the skills to help these businesses realistically find a viable path in an environmentally conscious way.

There is clearly a sense of urgency in children’s thoughts and voices today about their collective future. They often feel a sense of despair or lack of control in the face of an environmental crisis unfolding. They sense that politicians and Big Business do not appear aligned in their priorities with this generation, and their ability to help create a better future is slipping away from them. Indeed, research has shown, for example, that worries over climate change, and its impact can provoke or exacerbate mental health problems.

A solution, for us as adults, is not to give way to despair ourselves but to discover how to integrate a more holistic focus on sustainability into the education system, and cast our children to take lead roles in constructive climate action.

Inside the education gap

In the existing educational system, it is sometimes easy to share the fear that there is no space to educate children with the knowledge and practical skills needed to develop technical solutions that will ensure a sustainable future for all.

With the world’s population expected to grow from ca.7.7 to ca.9.7 billion people by 2050, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development warns that inadequate environmental governance and policy won’t be able to cope with this unprecedented growth in population and consumption needs. Significant technological innovation and adaptation will be needed to ensure a sustainable future for all.

Empowering productive climate action in children

Business has a role to play in developing and nurturing sustainable solutions, given our children will be the business and thought leaders of tomorrow.

I believe it is possible to bridge the gap between the frustration of our younger generation and the role of the education system, in teaching sustainability in a practical way that encourages optimism, inclusivity of action, and positive change for the good.

The educational frameworks for teaching sustainable development from the 1970s and 1980s assumed that conservation and technological change would address the problems of the time. They simply do not provide sufficient guidelines for teachers and students today. Rapid economic and social change requires teachers to prepare students for future jobs and technologies that do not yet exist and to tackle problems that have not yet occurred.

Putting hope into practice

Where some see only doom and gloom, I see hope for constructive solutions, a path that finds roles for climate-conscious youth, one that prepares them to positively and proactively meet the challenges ahead in the coming critical decade.

It is more than possible to make a paradigm shift to how we approach environmental education in our school system. Many options are available, to name a few:

•Integrate education in sustainable development into the existing curriculum as a standard practice rather than a specialized topic.

•Provide teaching methods that move beyond just classroom discussion to include hands-on implementation. Children and young adults need to not just learn about sustainability, but learn how to put sustainability into practice.

•Teach environmental engagement in a strategic and consistent way, not just as a “one-time” project.

•Update students on technical and social innovations as organizations, communities and countries transition to renewable societies.

•Implement McKinsey & Company’s insight that “the students with the best outcomes receive teacher-directed instruction in most or all classes, together with inquiry-based teaching in some classes.”

Educational change is already happening

When it comes to integrating sustainable practices into education, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. A lot of great work is already being done.

Programs like Eco SchoolsWatt Watchers of Texas (don’t let the name fool you, they are used internationally as well), Learning Lab, the Green School Alliance, and others are already having much success. Many of these programs allow schools to integrate environmental education into their existing curriculums. And some even provide schools with tools to use their buildings as live laboratories, which in turn saves the school money and gives the children a sense of real accomplishment.

Recognizing the time constraints faced by teachers, programs are categorized by class age or topic. Many organizations have worked diligently to provide simple teacher lesson plans to encourage greater participation. These programs allow children to expand their network to include climate scientists, corporations, NGO’s, community civic groups, and other ways to provide children opportunities that they would not otherwise experience in a schoolroom setting or at home.

The world of business is already joining the effort to combat climate change. What we now need to improve on is to ensure the youth of today are educated and empowered to solve the social and technical challenges needed to help build a sustainable future for all our sakes.

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