Green Schools & Curriculum

It is 7.30 a.m. in Kathryn Rizzo’s class at Mesquite High School in Gilbert, Ariz. Over 40 students arrive on a cold winter morning to listen to a new, intriguing subject.

“Who has heard the word sustainability?” Auriane Koster, the guest speaker, asks the class. Five hands go up while the remaining students sit blissfully ignorant.

Koster, a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University’s (ASU) School of Sustainability (SOS), is tasked with promoting ASU’s GK-12 Sustainability Science for Sustainable Schools program, a project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to further sustainability across high schools in the Phoenix metro area.

ASU received the five-year NSF grant in 2009, and it focuses on engaging high school students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers through community outreach initiatives. The project teams graduate students, sustainability researchers, high-school teachers and students, and district administrators to create a more sustainable curriculum, campus and community.

ASU works with partner school districts and outreach schools like Mesquite High School, where people like Koster talk about sustainability and how it can be incorporated into their curriculum.

Despite the slow start, the class soon becomes interactive as Koster invites students to design a spaceship that will sustain life for 6,000 years. They have only a few tools in hand and must use different aspects of sustainability ranging from energy conservation to community building. Students think of ingenious ways to create this spaceship as Koster explains the different facets of sustainability and its importance.

Meanwhile in the Tempe High School, in Tempe, Ariz., Koster’s “Introduction to Sustainability” curriculum is now being used by all teachers.

“What is happening now is this is being brought on to a district level in Tempe. All schools are doing this. We are finally starting to see introduction to sustainability being done in schools,” says Koster.

The project’s target audience is high schools, and according to Koster, “High schoolers are more in transition and closer to getting into STEM careers and closer to higher education. However, for outreach, we also go to elementary and middle schools. Our core focus is on high schoolers as our program is limited to six years and we need to focus on a specific segment.”

The project has also yielded rich dividends at Chandler High School in Chandler, Ariz. According to Sandra Rodegher, another Ph.D. student and outreach coordinator for the Chandler school site, her work with teachers and advanced placement students at the school has spiked interest in both STEM careers and sustainability in particular.

“After a year I spent at Chandler High, the school has become ASU’s largest feeder high school for courses in sustainability, and they also provided the largest incoming students and freshman for ASU’s School of Sustainability.”

In Chandler High, freshmen take courses geared towards general science skills and they add sustainability. “This makes it problem-focused, and is a really great fit for them as we can give them case studies that enhance their critical thinking. Activity and discussion are approaches that help kids who don’t want to speak up. Everyone gets excited and is affected,” says Rodegher.

This year, they are focusing on short 10-minute warm up activities on sustainability that can be a plug-in in any arts or science class. According to Koster, “These can be added on to any teacher’s curriculum. How can we throw in sustainability without adding new stuff? Our focus is on making it easy for teachers to incorporate sustainability into an existing curriculum without making changes on that.”

Their efforts in engaging high schools have also met several challenges. In most cases, they had to find real champions of sustainability who were passionate about the subject and were also key influencers in engaging others.

“You first have to start with a champion and start with at least one or two teachers that really want to do this who are willing to go full force with it. They have the potential to network out and branch out within the school,” says Koster.

In most cases, they find it difficult to get in as “outsiders,” and try to introduce or make changes to curriculum — something personal and sacred to most teachers. “We have to fit ourselves into the school and find someone who is attached to us,” Koster says.

In some cases, even finding champions may not work well in the long run. An example is Mountain Point High School in Phoenix, where everyone was excited initially but as the year progressed, other initiatives took prominence. “Even when you have champions, some other teachers don’t have time for it. The first push can be really challenging because most schools don’t have time,” Koster says.

In other cases, a very strong champion for sustainability within the school sometimes makes others think that they are not empowered. This leads to “it is a his or her thing” syndrome.

The fact is, very few teachers have any formal education or training in sustainability. When asked what it means, many immediately relate it to recycling and then to environmental science.

“This is a very new subject and our teachers have a limited background in this field. We are some of the first schools to have a structured educational training in this subject,” Koster says.

The outreach coordinators start with providing teacher workshops first. For those who have some curriculum focused on sustainability, they try to help modify the curriculum so that it meets core standards.

“We find teachers interested in sustainability, develop workshops for them and then help them implement sustainability into the curriculum. We then get involved in clubs, facilities and we try to get into community,” says Koster.

They follow a curriculum, campus and community model where their first objective is to add sustainability to the school’s curriculum and then get students and faculty engaged in activities on campus and also look at developing external community partnerships. Not all segments of the model may work in unison for every school or community.

In most cases, school administrators and facilities personnel urge them to show real cost-savings so that it can benefit the school and support their cause.

All courses offered are free and are available for download at their website, sustainableschools.asu.edu. The coordinators provide free curriculum and also help implement it. “You can do sustainability at no cost,” Koster says.

The Tempe Union High School District is working with Chevron to implement a whole range of changes within schools in the district. They are thinking of installing heat pumps, living labs, etc., and the coordinators are working with them so that this can be integrated into the curriculum side.

There are simple, cheap, effective changes that can be made at the school level and can prime them into bigger solutions.

The existing course content emphasizes project-based and enquiry-based learning models. “In teaching sustainability, I’ve found that kids are not interested unless you relate it to their lives. Kids will grasp an idea and remember it beyond the classroom if it somehow has an effect on them or if they get an opportunity to impact it,” says Koster.

“Project-based learning is all about your impact within the community and how different things are going to impact their life. No one wants to be lectured with PowerPoint for a long time.”

Interestingly, their outreach activities are making kids get more interested in STEM. Immediately after Koster completed a presentation at Marcos de Niza High School in Tempe, Ariz, she says, “Several kids came up to me and said they want go to college and study sustainability.”

However, there is currently no hard data to show that introducing sustainability in the curriculum could increase students’ interest in STEM careers.

According to Koster, “We have anecdotal data now. Students knew more about sustainability at the end of the course, and we have some hard data from the Tempe High School,” Koster says.

The vastness of the subject makes a curriculum in sustainability very difficult to replicate across schools.

“The teachers are different; the students they serve are different. The school principal plays a huge role. For instance, the principal at Tempe High gave us free rein to introduce a curriculum on this subject but this is not the case in many schools,” says Koster.

“We come with ideas that could be replicated but sometimes it does not work.”

Sometimes they also tend to avoid words like “climate change.” “This has become part of politics and religion and we talk about clean air and clean water,” Rodegher says.

They believe students in public schools can impact change. They have the capability for more growth and learning potential than in a school that is already developed. You can help influence a transition — greater stakeholder involvement. You can impact your school. You can make the school better.

In choosing schools, the coordinators look at schools with larger number of at-risk populations. “We were hoping to target at-risk populations. There is plenty of research data showing that lower socio-economic status families are being affected most by any environmental issues. If we can build capacity within populations, then it serves them past the time in the classroom,” Rodegher says. 

Sarat Pratapchandran is a writer specializing in education, environment and healthcare. His website is www.lettersnatcher.com.

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