Skip to main content

How to teach sustainable living for World Science Day (sponsored)

Help young people develop the ability to make positive decisions for the future of the planet with these lesson tips

Sustainable living and sustainable mobility

Help young people develop the ability to make positive decisions for the future of the planet with these lesson tips

World Science Day for Peace and Development is on 10 November, and it’s a great time to engage with the science behind big topics, such as sustainable development. I like to remind my students that, every second, a new world record is set for the number of people living on our planet. Putting a world population clock on the whiteboard can be very effective for illustrating this big picture and a starting point to discuss possible effects this might have.

Dive into development

At the start of my first lessons on development, I ask my key stage 3 students to choose one of three statements:

  1. I don’t care about development.
  2. I care but there’s nothing I can do.
  3. I care, and I can make a difference.

Refreshingly, no one has ever voted for 1) but unfortunately the majority vote for 2), echoing the common misconception among young people that global issues are out of their hands. Helping students to understand these problems – and how important their choices are in affecting them – is key.

One effective approach is to use a carousel, with students working in mixed-ability groups to support each other’s learning. Factsheets placed at each station will allow students to focus on different aspects of development in turn, such as sustainable development goals, trade and poverty, then record information such as the importance of the role of multinationals when focusing on trade. Students can record the relevant information in different ways, such as via a worksheet or as part of a less-structured mind map. Students can then move in their groups, visiting every station over the course of a lesson. The information they have gathered can then be used to form the basis of a debate or an extended piece of writing.

Next, I ask students to make one commitment that will make a difference to global development. This comes full circle back to the original vote. A repeat of the original vote and a further discussion illustrates the learning that has happened and allows the teacher to assess their progress.

Understanding urbanisation

The world’s population is becoming more and more urbanised; in 2007, we passed the landmark of more than 50 per cent of the global population living in towns and cities. Get students to engage with the location, size and growth of cities using interactive resources, describing and analysing the differences they find. This can also be structured using simple questions, such as what is projected to be the world’s biggest city by 2035?

Urbanisation is a sustainability and global development issue, but it is also an issue of mobility. The way we interact with our urban spaces is of ever-increasing importance in terms of human health, environmental damage and global sustainable living. I encourage my students to consider their journey to school. Thinking about something so simple may seem basic, but for many students, the idea that small, everyday decisions make a difference is a game-changer.

Students can consider and quantify the impact of their choices by calculating CO2 emissions for their journey to school. This is personal, links with numeracy and quantifies their impact on the environment. In addition, these calculations can quickly be scaled up to give a sense of collective impact.

You can also use a card sort to address the causes of climate change, getting students to match images to factors affecting climate and scientific explanations of how this happens. Homework that encourages students to engage with their families in considering the impact of their choices can also be powerful, and there are many resources that can be used to prompt actions to combat climate change.

Human versus chimp

For teachers interested in furthering their understanding of international development, I strongly recommend Hans Rosling’s book, Factfulness. There is a fantastic quiz at the opening that can be used with students, illustrating how we are often “more wrong than random”. In other words, humans on average score worse in the quiz than a chimp would when it picked answers at random. This occurs because our often stereotypical ideas about development are not based on scientific understanding. Discussing the results of the quiz with a class is a great way to engage them with the importance of science (plus it’s fun to let them know they know less than a chimp).

Whatever your approach to teaching sustainability, there can be no question that science plays a key role in engaging young people with the social, economic and environmental issues that make it such a challenge. The ability to be analytical and develop scientific understanding is also increasingly important in the often schismatic political and social climate we live in. By integrating understanding with issue-based discussions and debates, we can give young people the ability to make positive and informed decisions for the future. World Science Day for Peace and Development is the opportunity to do so.

Alex Macdonald is head of geography at East Barnet School in London

Find a wealth of interactive resources on sustainable living to try with your students here.