Our world is in crisis: a global pandemic, economic inequality, racial disparities, and…climate change. Although climate change may not move as fast as COVID-19 or have immediate consequences, it too threatens human lives and the global economy in real and dramatic ways. Before the pandemic dominated international news, large-scale collective action seemed virtually impossible. Sustainable actions, even on an individual scale, sounded nice but were not “realistic” for many. Then COVID-19 hit. Suddenly, traveling less and growing our own food are feasible, if not necessary. Cities, counties, and states are coming together to protect their most vulnerable people and proving that as a society, we can adapt.
Knowing that we are capable of a collective response to a global health crisis empowers us to engage in new levels of responding to climate change. This has the potential to extend to education and how we prepare students to overcome the challenges of a changing climate. COVID-19 is rapidly shifting the landscape of K-12 education, presenting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to deeply embed education for sustainability into the curriculum and provide students with the knowledge and tools they will need to thrive in an ever-changing world.
Here are three threads – of many – that must be woven into teaching and learning as we move forward, so that our schools and our students may be in service to thriving communities and a healthy planet.
The K-12 classroom will look very different when students and teachers return to school. Student time in a classroom and with teachers will likely be limited. This begs the question, how should this precious in person time be best utilized? If lectures and tests are conducted virtually, what should happen in the classroom? The two-dimensionality of virtual learning must be balanced by fully engaging students’ brains with hands-on, project-based learning. When it comes to education for sustainability, we need to raise student interest and awareness around sustainability and resiliency issues through immersive experiences. We also need to inspire them to continue deepening those experiences in the classroom, at home, online, and out in the world. The magnitude of the solutions we suggest must match the magnitude of the challenges we face to foster inspiration and action.
We must empower students to make an impact right now. We do that through great project-based learning, or perhaps more accurately, “classroom work-based learning.” Work-based learning is a continuum that starts in the classroom, where projects mirror the world of work (and align with academic standards). Strategic Energy Innovations (SEI) supports students doing real-world work like energy audits, where students conduct a school energy audit and present their findings to the school board, making the case for investments that reduce utility costs and campus greenhouse gas emissions. SEI’s Water Conservation Specialist curriculum is a distance learning resource that allows students to continue doing real-world work without having to step foot on campus. The Next Generation Science Standards-aligned curriculum includes lessons on climate change, the water cycle, and human impacts on water, as well as a personal water assessment that students can complete to become water specialists remotely and identify ways to save water and money at home. The distance learning version of the Water Conservation Specialist curriculum does not require special materials or Internet access and empowers students to make real change happen right from home.
Phyllis Cruz, a teacher at River City High School in Sacramento, California, utilized this curriculum as she transitioned to distance teaching this spring. She particularly enjoyed the Water Cycle Experiment, where students used simple kitchen materials to recreate the water cycle and conduct a salty taste test, observing how the evaporation cycle from the ocean creates fresh water.
Students often report feeling empowered to pursue a career in sustainability after hearing personal stories from professionals in the field. The work-based learning continuum supports connecting students with professionals through field learning experiences, mentorships, job shadowing opportunities, and internships. For example, SEI hosts annual Green Careers Conferences where students learn about green career pathways via engagement with sustainability professionals. This year, in light of COVID-19, a Green Careers Webinar Series is being offered instead and is open to teachers and students everywhere. Highlights include Kevin Lee, Environmental Impact and Compliance Specialist at Dr. Bronner’s, sharing his sustainable sourcing strategies; Cristina Marquez of the San Diego Electrical Training Institute describing how apprenticeships can be a pathway to “learning while doing” and getting paid a competitive wage; and Kelley Le from the University of California, Irvine giving insight into pursuing an education career in STEM. A high school student who attended Le’s presentation shared afterward, “Listening to Le’s experiences helped me become a bit more aware of myself and what I want to do in my life.”
When students are empowered, they begin to see themselves as leaders capable of contributing to climate solutions. During this time when so much is out of students’ control, it is extraordinarily important for them to feel like they have agency. By empowering students to be leaders now, we create a pathway for them to drive environmental solutions forward into their professional lives. A series of virtual teacher trainings offered this summer provided tips and ideas for encouraging student agency through activities such as conducting energy audits, engaging in the policymaking process, and designing more energy efficient renewable energy devices. Projects covered in the trainings can be completed in any learning environment (distance, classroom, and blended) without extensive materials and provide students with an idea of what different environmental career pathways look like.
COVID-19 has shown us that we must teach students how to be resilient in the face of uncertainty. One of the most tangible ways we can do this is by turning school campuses into living laboratories that teach students through hands-on learning how sustainable practices can improve our ability to respond to change. Strategies and technologies that can be implemented to create resilient schools include, but are not limited to, solar energy, energy storage and management, building automation, sustainable transportation, green infrastructure, zero waste efforts, and green schoolyards.
Empowered students engage in meaningful learning and action that contribute to school resiliency projects, such as leading an energy conservation campaign. Here, students are challenged to think beyond individual actions and come up with a plan to reduce energy consumption at their school. A significant aspect of this campaign involves students using their knowledge and voice to communicate the need for energy conservation among teachers, school and district leaders, and the community. A student from Harmony Magnet Academy in Strathmore, California describes his experience working toward energy resilience: “Collaborating with the energy team allowed me to practice and develop my leadership, time-management, and public speaking skills. This experience has also led to changes in my behavior. I now see waste in all kinds of places and strive to help conserve. I never noticed how many lights I left on at home or paid attention to the temperature on our AC system. Now I find myself looking for ways to save energy!”
Transforming schools into living laboratories ensures that sustainability continues to be part of everyday education. As schools consider how to apply their limited funding, it is wise to consider investing in the long-term resiliency and efficiency of their buildings, which will likely outlive the immediate consequences of COVID-19. A campus that makes a commitment to reducing its environmental impact is a real-world example that students can see, measure, verify, and take part in – simultaneously empowering students and creating a hub of resiliency.
COVID-19 has taught us to consider the most vulnerable in our communities. Many of us are staying home, wearing masks, and maintaining physical distance not just for ourselves, but for those who are elderly or immunocompromised – loved ones and strangers alike. We have tapped into an increased level of empathy that, when applied to climate change, will drive sustainable solutions that support equity and justice. When students are taught to deeply understand their communities, they are empowered to make a real and meaningful difference that they can see and feel directly connected to.
This year, students in the Marin School of Environmental Leadership in San Rafael, California have been learning about a community near their school that is vulnerable to extreme heat caused by climate change and how to take action to address the issue. Students used the Cal-Adapt tool to forecast changes in the number and timing of extreme heat days. To gain insight and truly understand the community’s needs, students administered surveys that were translated into the languages represented in the region, attended city council meetings, and hosted educational events. With a newfound sense of empathy, students presented an extreme heat preparedness plan to their city’s Climate Action Plan Forum that accounted for the needs and voices of all community members. Adaptation projects like this one are even more important in times of large-scale crises, like a pandemic, the effects of which are magnified by climate change. Integrating design thinking into the everyday curriculum is a good way for schools to begin creating a culture of empathy. “Perspective gaining” exercises can help foster empathy by asking students to listen deeply to others (e.g., fellow students, a specific community) and then reflect back on what they heard and learned. This is a particularly powerful practice when applied to community-based projects.
Humans are capable of monumental change. The COVID-19 pandemic proves this and provides profound glimpses of what is possible: clear skies, collective community action, and hopefulness in the face of uncertainty. We cannot afford to return to “business as usual.” The future of the planet, and us as a people, is at stake. School administrators, facilities staff, and teachers: let’s take this opportunity to steer a different course in K-12 education and secure the role our schools can play in ensuring the future is sustainable, equitable, and resilient.
Cyane Dandridge is the founder and Executive Director of Strategic Energy Innovations (SEI) and the School of Environmental Leadership. Prior to founding SEI, Cyane utilized her entrepreneurship skills and knowledge of innovation in the built environment to bring climate solutions to the community level. As a pioneer in the environmental sustainability field, she continues to be excited about the potential for communities and youth to create an environmentally responsible world and is proud of SEI’s role in this valuable and necessary endeavor. Cyane holds an M.S. in Building Technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Katie Rogers leads Strategic Energy Innovations’ (SEI) communications and marketing efforts, supporting program teams that are working on a variety of environmental education and sustainability capacity-building projects. Prior to joining SEI, Katie worked in marketing and advertising in California, New York City, and Seattle. She holds a Masters of the Environment degree in Sustainability Planning and Management from the University of Colorado, Boulder and a Bachelor of Arts in Communications and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.