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Steps to downsize ecological footprint

Teresa Saunders visits a research site in Wales which offers pupils a practical approach to saving the Earth

How to achieve a globally sustainable lifestyle may be high on the political agenda at the moment - but its certainly a low priority in the school curriculum. That's the view of Ann MacGarry, education officer at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), at Machynlleth, mid-Wales, and she wants to know why such an important subject has been so resolutely neglected.

Criticising the "inadequate and disjointed" approach to education for sustainability at all levels of the school curriculum, Ann explains:

"Although the impact of climate change, environmental degradation and global inequality will determine and define their future, pupils are not being equipped with the kind of knowledge they need to cope with such far-reaching problems. Surely, the main challenge for, and responsibility of, our education system is to produce young people with the confidence and know-how to deal with the world in which they will have to live," she continued. "But this is just not happening."

Ann MacGarry believes that until education for sustainability is given more prominence in the curriculum, there is little chance of its profile being raised substantially in our classrooms. "There are, of course, some schools where excellent work is going on," she acknowledges. "But, there are also schools where even A-level students' understanding is sketchy, inadequate or completely inaccurate." With its far-reaching education programmes for both teachers and pupils, the centre - Europe's leading ecological research site - is helping to redress the balance. While admitting that children can find the world's environmental problems difficult to contemplate she maintains that the sustainable agenda offers positive, constructive and just solutions - "and that is something they do understand".

CAT is best-known for its work on renewable energy, achieving world status in the exploration of wind, water and solar power. But, while renewable energy is a key aspect of its education programme, catering for everyone from primary pupils to postgraduate students, the centre also demonstrates the importance of the "joined-up" approach to sustainability that it wants to see in the school curriculum.

Its programmes emphasise that promoting sustainability in a global context means focusing on cause and effect, understanding global interdependence and examining the choices and changes needed to keep our planet in balance.

"One of the most powerful ways of exploring these links with younger children is through ecological footprints," says Ms MacGarry. "This practical, exciting and wide-ranging approach offers pupils the chance to track familiar everyday objects from beginning to end, assessing their use and importance in our lives - and their impact across the globe. Children explore everything from energy consumption to the use of raw materials; fair trade to transportation; industrial pollution to waste disposal."

The centre also runs residential visits and courses where teachers and pupils stay in pioneering eco-cabins, specially equipped with the latest sources of renewable energy. Here they can experience sustainability in action and also take advantage of the cabins' unique energy monitoring and measuring system.

Centre for Alternative Technology, Machynlleth, Powys, SY20 9AZLesson ideas, experiments and practical activities for all phases from KS2. Book list: CAT publications dept: Tel: 01654 705959Information and downloadable activities, including ecological footprints: www.cat.org.uk.Eco-cabins for teachers courses and pupil residential courses; information about day visits: CAT education officer: Tel: 01654 705983.

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