State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Merging Environment and Education Is Crucial for Sustainable Development

By Haein Shin and Anchal Sharma

Over the course of the past few years, the Center for Sustainable Development (CSD)’s educational mission has focused on bringing together environment and education. In this era of sustainable development, environment and education need to be truly integral, with the well-being of future generations and the planet at stake. What better way to begin tackling sustainability issues than through meaningful education on the environment, where learners take ownership and action on the issues in their physical surroundings?

ICT center in India
Photo: Center for Sustainable Development

Take CSD’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Center as an example. In addition to teaching digital, language, business and life skills to women in India, this solar-powered facility helps to build awareness about environment-friendly practices. The women who attend are not only acquiring skills, but also acquiring the skills to train and mentor others, so that the center and learning can be sustained.

Within three months of the ICT Center’s opening, the trainees got used to the spirit and culture of the center, which helped them take ownership of their own learning. They displayed increasing comfort and confidence in the program by coming up with questions and utilizing computers at the center with their recently acquired computer skills, to independently look for answers. To further develop this curiosity, the environmental education piece was introduced. The idea was to see how aware and concerned trainees are about their surroundings and motivate them to have an attitude to work both individually and collectively toward solutions to current problems and the prevention of new ones. The environment sessions were meant to start an open dialogue that will help them stimulate their curiosity as well as engage with real-world issues that transcend classroom walls.

women sitting in circle
Photo: Center for Sustainable Development

During the introductory session, trainees were divided into small groups and were thrown a series of questions ranging from current climate changes they are observing, to the use of plastic in houses. The approach was simple — by using inquiry-based learning, making them aware of practices and attitudes around them toward the environment and helping them to inquire into those. The facilitator guided the discussion by interjecting at critical moments, asking the right kind of questions and creating a friendly environment so that trainees can share their thoughts without hesitation. The entire classroom became engaged in discussions; they were comfortable and sharing confidently. They were actively participating and were themselves driving the discussion. It was clear this was something they could relate to their everyday life experiences.

The discussion led to a time of sharing ideas and the trainees came up with many interesting ideas about what factors are responsible for climatic changes, pointing to different kinds of pollution, ozone layer depletion, increasing greenhouse gases and the resulting global warming. The ideas were encouraged to be transformed into possible solutions to tackle these problems. Trainees pointed to many already existing, as well as very imaginative solutions, such as “collect all the garbage from the earth and transport it to some other planet.” At least now they were thinking of the possibilities, but with more brainstorming guided by the right questions, the discussion progressed from using “we statements” to “I statements.” The session left trainees feeling a sense of agency and that they were in a position to do something, starting with their own surroundings and eventually on a broader scale.

sustainable development goals
Sustainable Development Goals
people writing on large piece of paper
Photo: Center for Sustainable Development

This process — of transforming ideas from classroom discussions to actionable steps to resolve environmental problems in the community — spans across CSD’s education programs. The Environment in Action initiative came about as a means to apply the knowledge and research of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists at Columbia University’s Earth Institute to science curricula at schools and community centers in developing countries where CSD works in the education spheres. It soon became clear that regardless of country and setting, every community of learners can benefit from environmental education in homes, schools, businesses and communities.

poster with ideas on it
Photo: Center for Sustainable Development

By presenting science that is alive and relevant to the daily lives of students, the newly launched Eco Ambassadors program of the Environment In Action initiative takes discussions on the environment through to actionable steps. The program is meant to engage youth in all places, so that they can begin educating their own communities about local environmental issues and start taking small steps to solve these issues with community action. More specifically, the initiative is driven by youth, children and parent mentors, who identify and resolve an environmental issue of their choice in their locale. In partnership with Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN)’s Global Schools Program and Design for Change’s Feel-Imagine-Do-Share method, the program is putting into motion communal action to protect the environment.

kids sitting in circle
Photo: Center for Sustainable Development

In the first Eco Ambassadors workshop, participants as young as seven years old joined the cause to brainstorm environmental issues they would like to investigate in their own communities. Local environment pioneers shared their own stories and experiences, while highlighting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals along with the Design for Change guide on how to go through the process from ideas for change into actionable solutions. After a ten-week period, the series on environmental action will culminate in a presentation at a side event of the International Conference on Sustainable Development held at Columbia University in September 2019.

poster describing the harms of high fluoride
Image: Center for Sustainable Development

For CSD, environmental education also means going out in the field to directly address issues that have detrimental consequences for specific populations. Taking Environment in Action’s scope of public awareness and education, the Fluoride Testing for Public Awareness project tests and educates the population in Alirajpur, India on the causes and consequences of fluorosis commonly found in their midst.

In partnership with the District Collector & Magistrate’s office of Alirajpur, Fluoride Knowledge and Action Network of India Natural Resource Economics and Management Foundation, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and ASER/Pratham, this project is not only testing the water for fluoride levels, but sharing the findings with the immediate communities and local government leadership using these water sources. The education for fluoride awareness and prevention involves training on testing procedure, testing water points, sharing data, and creating public awareness materials (booklets, skits, sensitization meetings), which are all meant to lead to a collective call for action on water treatment for a clean water supply.

sustainable development goals
Sustainable Development Goals

CSD’s aim is to take the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework not only as a reference, but as a practical guide. By merging education and environment through various programs, our design is to simultaneously integrate multiple SDGs, such as reducing inequalities, addressing job market-aligned education needs, supporting women for economic growth, utilizing affordable and clean energy, and solving water and health issues. And we look forward to doing more in the future.

By providing opportunities to employ knowledge and skills in a larger and local ecosystem, the convergence of education and environment can spur individual and communal action for a cause. Combining education and environment can inform views on current societal norms toward the environment and can help begin conversations around each individual’s role and utility in seemingly “big problems.” We look forward to seeing what these initiatives can bring about as education and environment come together for sustainability.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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