Young people are the future. The challenges in that future are many and complex, and we need to ensure that our students get opportunities not just to study them but also to engage practically. Protecting our shared natural environment will require significant action at an international level, of course, but we must show young people that they can contribute in a meaningful way.
The rise of eco-coordinator programmes in schools across the UK is increasing the visibility of environmental issues, led by teams of staff and students, all of whom are dedicated to raising awareness and understanding of environmentalism. But reducing the ecological footprint of a school community is no simple task. This process could involve a wide variety of approaches – assemblies, tutor-time competitions, specially created lesson plans – as long as it helps the community to consider and reduce their impact on the natural environment. So what does a successful programme look like?
The most important element of any student leadership position is that it is meaningful. It can be very effective, for example, to give eco-coordinators a permanent spot at school council meetings. In the build-up to each student council, the eco-coordinators can document the extent of a problem – taking photographs of litter bins overflowing, researching the amount of energy consumed by each year group, and so on – and prepare proposed solutions to be presented to the student council. The lead eco-coordinator can then attend the meeting and put the case forward.
Even the most meaningful decisions, made by really passionate eco-coordinator groups, can fall flat when it comes to implementation. A programme will never be successful if the school community doesn’t care about it, which means that promoting engagement is every bit as important as offering information. Understanding what sustainability means is great, but sending students out into the world with a heartfelt desire to change the system for the better is far more powerful. What’s more, it also provides lots of opportunities for fun activities.
Appealing to students’ competitive sides can be extremely useful in boosting engagement, with school-wide contests bringing the entire community on board. These can vary from simple tutor group recycling competitions to more creative tasks such as designing a new school-branded reusable cup; anything that builds the work of the eco-coordinators into the fabric of the school community is good.
And don’t underestimate the power of a badge. One very effective programme I saw used the idea of Xbox achievements and PlayStation trophies (that students were already familiar with) to develop an eco-achievements badge system. If a class managed to reduce their teacher’s printing budget by half in a year, for example, they all received badges. Pretty soon, students’ bags were bedazzled with eco achievements and the eco-coordinator team was able to hunt for even more impressive achievements to improve the school’s green credentials.
Even when dealing with complex global issues, there can be great benefits to keeping it simple. To that end, eco co-coordinators should provide opportunities for students to interact with natural processes, building their understanding of the interconnectedness of the world's ecosystems.
A tutor terrarium project can work well for this, with students put into teams to design and create their own mini ecosystem. Each group can choose an ecosystem to emulate – from a temperate forest-style system to a semi-arid environment – and work out the appropriate supply of light, heat and water. Then they can judge the success of each terrarium a few months later and see which has survived and thrived.
Similarly, gardening clubs and “environmental zones” within the school grounds are also great for allowing students to get up close and personal with nature. One great project I saw had students setting up an in-school permaculture garden; they spent months researching and designing systems that would ensure a sustainable and self-sufficient environmental zone and came together for the construction of the project.
I have also seen excellent examples of students growing spring onions and herbs to be donated to a neighbouring retirement home, and working with science teachers to design a simple irrigation system using the constant cycling of the school pond water (students loved the challenge of calculating the number of fish necessary to produce the right amount of nutrients, and the correct plants needed to produce enough fish food).
A successful eco-coordinator programme gives students an opportunity to do something tangible and measurable with the environmental knowledge they acquire. We shouldn’t simply shut them in a room to tell them about the enormity of the challenges facing them, we should get out of the way and let them have a go at fixing them.
Sebastian Witts is an assistant headteacher at the King Alfred School in Somerset. He tweets at @4ward2mars
For more ideas about getting started, visit the EDF Eco Club page.