The importance of sustainability in education

  • Environmental education as a core curriculum component
  • Introducing sustainability education at all school levels
  • Launching environmental initiatives
  • Going zero waste
  • Developing future stewards of Earth
  • Students take matters into their own hands

It may come as a surprise to some among us, but there is actually a hidden cost in terms of carbon emissions to almost everything we do, from the food we eat to that fancy new gadget we just bought. Our society, economy, and environment are all interconnected and any decision we make today could have a major impact on our planet further down the road. If we want to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy everything the natural world has to offer, we will need to make a significant adjustment to our lifestyles and our way of thinking. The first step towards creating a more sustainable future is to educate people about the importance of preserving our natural resources. In line with this goal, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, brings together more than 120 world leaders to discuss ways to tackle climate change and realise goals set forth by the Paris Agreement.

Environmental education as a core curriculum component

UNESCO recently published a new report called Learn for Our Planet, which assessed educational plans and curricula frameworks from nearly 50 countries around the world. Among those analysed, more than 50 per cent made no reference to climate change, while biodiversity is only mentioned in 19 per cent. Furthermore, of 1,600 teachers and education leaders surveyed for the study, one third said that environment-related issues were not part of their teacher training. This is why UNESCO is now urging countries to make environmental education a core curriculum component by 2025. “Education must prepare learners to understand the current crisis and shape the future. To save our planet, we must transform the way we live, produce, consume and interact with nature. Integrating education for sustainable development into all learning programmes must become fundamental, everywhere”, says Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO.

Several countries have incorporated climate change and sustainable development into their national curricula since then. Italy was first, followed by New Zealand, which introduced climate change studies into its secondary school curriculum, and then Argentina and Mexico. A number of positive initiatives were also launched in Central and Eastern Europe. In Spain, for instance, the Ministry for Ecological Transition (MITECO) has passed laws that make climate change education compulsory at both primary and secondary level. Students in this country are thus required to learn about things like climate, hydrography, and natural vegetation through courses such as geography, geology, ethics, environmental sciences, applied sciences, and scientific culture. In the Philippines, the authorities went one step further and passed a law called the Graduation Legacy For the Environment Act, which requires students at all levels to plant 10 trees if they want to graduate

Introducing sustainability education at all school levels

Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s education minister, recently announced plans to introduce sustainability education at all school levels in the country, from primary to pre-university. This will be done through the Eco Stewardship Programme (ESP), which will be launched alongside the Singapore Green Plan 2030 and will aim to instill a broader mindset change among students and encourage them to adopt new, environmentally conscious habits. Within this initiative, the Ministry of Education will revise the science and humanities curricula in primary and secondary schools so that students can learn how to protect the environment by using resources wisely. 

The school infrastructure will also be enhanced with new sustainability features, such as LED lights, direct-current ceiling fans, and other energy-efficient technologies, solar panels, and trees. Other sustainability-focused measures will include encouraging students to adopt new daily habits, such as reducing their water and energy consumption, minimising food waste, and recycling. “Building a culture of sustainability requires schools, families, and the community to complement one another’s efforts. The learning from schools will reinforce our community efforts, and in turn, will encourage and cultivate more good habits to create a ripple effect on society”, says Wong.

A total of four schools will take part in the pilot stage of the project: Elias Park Primary School, Mee Toh School, Commonwealth Secondary School, and Tampines Secondary School. The pilot stage will last from April 2021 to 2023 and will aim to help the ministry reduce net carbon emissions from the schools sector by two-thirds by 2023. The schools will also be partnered with Science Centre Singapore, which will help them conduct sustainability-themed learning journeys and provide mentorship to their students. “We hope to see in every student an eco steward for life – where they will have a sensible sensitivity towards the environment, and understand what it means to live sustainably”, adds Wong.

Speaking at the COP26 summit, British naturalist Sir David Attenborough called on young people to take up the mantle in the fight against climate change. “Perhaps the fact that the people most affected by climate change are no longer some imagined future generation but young people alive today, perhaps that will give us the impetus we need to rewrite our story,” he said. “The people alive now and the generation to come will look at this conference and consider one thing – did the number stop rising and start to drop as a result of commitments made here? There’s every reason to believe that the answer can be yes. If working apart we are forces powerful enough to destabilise our planet, surely working together we are powerful enough to save it.”

Launching environmental initiatives

Los Altos High School in the US state of California was recently awarded the US Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools award, which recognises schools for their conservation efforts and the promotion of environmental literacy. Thus, the California-based school became one of only 27 schools across the country to receive the coveted award. In addition to using solar panels to satisfy more than half of its electricity needs and providing teachers and staff with free electric vehicle charging stations, the school was greatly praised for the community efforts of its Green Team environmental club. “Los Altos High School has long been a leader in environmental initiatives, focusing on all areas of our school operations from purchasing to energy conservation to recycling to the generation of clean, green energy”, says principal Wynne Satterwhite. “The role of students in these efforts has been significant.”

Among other things, the Green Team club created a free virtual course designed to teach people about environmental sustainability. Titled E2: Environmental Education, the course takes place over a period of four weeks and features a wide range of interactive activities on platforms like Slack and Google Classroom. “We thought this project was a good way to bring back a little bit of control into people’s lives by controlling how they lived a little bit to make it a little more green, healthy and sustainable”, explains Mallory Weisfeld, a freshman at Los Altos High School and one of the creators of the course. One of the main goals of this project was to enable participants to become part of a sustainable community and make more environmentally-conscious life choices. To this end, the team also provides participants with a list of local eco-friendly businesses to shop at.

Going zero waste

Tenison Woods College, a co-educational secondary school in Mount Gambier, South Australia, recently announced its commitment to go zero waste by 2025 and to be completely ‘off-grid’ by 2030. To help it reach this lofty goal, the school has launched a number of sustainability projects over the years, the most impressive of which is the Project Recology Centre. Located in a repurposed groundsman shed, this waste management hub is used to convert plastic into everyday items, such as plant boxes, clipboards, jewellery, school signs, and crates. The centre goes through 20 kilograms of plastic per day and has recycled more than five tonnes of it since it first opened its doors to students. Without it, all that plastic would have probably ended up in a landfill.

The centre is run by Callum Unger, who designs projects with individual classes and even offers one-on-one sessions for some of the older students. One of these students is John, a year 10 student who has a passion for making things. “It’s amazing how everybody can just chuck bottle caps out but you can reuse them. You could build cubby houses, benches, tables, anything really”, he says. For Unger, the most rewarding part of this project is being able to pass his knowledge on to his students. “In a couple of years [they’ll] be out of school, and it’s going to be their generation who will have to deal with the problem and see what we can make of it”, he adds.

Developing future stewards of Earth

The School for Examining Essential Questions of Sustainability (SEEQS) is a secondary public charter school in Honolulu that is characterised by a rather innovative programme, whereby traditional courses like maths, science, social studies, English, and the arts are combined with a project-based, interdisciplinary course called Essential Question of Sustainability (EQS). This year-long course revolves around essential questions that are relevant to the local community and allows students to apply what they have learned in class to real-world situations.

Over the years, SEEQS students have participated in a wide range of sustainability-focused projects, including the construction and maintenance of rain gardens, aquaponics, composting systems, and raised garden beds. They also regularly take part in conservation work at the nearby Manoa-Palolo stream. At the end of each project, students are required to defend their project in front of a panel that consists of energy conservation experts, sustainable food production experts, and other members of the community. “Ultimately, we need students to understand the complexity of these environmental issues that we’re facing as a planet and as a society”, explains Buffy Cushman-Patz, the executive director of SEEQS. “When we try and simplify it, we do an injustice to the complexities of the problems and to the capacity of middle school students to understand them.”

Students take matters into their own hands

Thankfully, the importance of climate change education is not lost on students. According to a recent global survey of more than 10,000 secondary school students, 84 per cent of respondents said they were worried about the effects of climate change. Furthermore, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said that they believe that their governments should be doing more to combat climate change. What’s even more troubling is that 70 per cent of teachers who took part in a recent UK survey said that they never received training on any aspects of climate change. Rather than waiting for governments to get their act together, some students have decided to take matters into their own hands and launched a campaign called ‘Teach the Teacher’, which calls for climate change education to be made a mandatory part of the secondary school curriculum across the globe.

“Education for all is a human right, and education about a crisis that is currently upon us and will affect each and every one of us is also a right”, says 16-year-old Aishwarya Puttur from Teach the Teacher. “Climate change education should no longer be a privilege but rather something that is available to all. It must be one that includes the intersections of the climate crisis, states scientific facts as it is, has frontline defenders and marginalised people’s voices heard and explains how we can make sustainable changes and take action.” Campaign representatives will use the COP26 summit, which is being held in Glasgow, as an opportunity to present their idea to global leaders and try to persuade them to remedy the issue.

Creating a more sustainable world is an incredibly challenging endeavour, but an essential one nevertheless. To achieve this goal, a fundamental shift in the way we live and consume natural resources is required. Educational institutions are set to play a crucial role in these efforts by incorporating sustainability education into their curricula and nurturing a new generation of young people who will be more conscious of the natural world and ready to do everything in their power to protect it.