Apr 19, 2021
Natural processes and green technologies to restore the world’s ecosystems and mitigate climate change is the focus of this year’s Earth Day 2021 – ‘Restore Our Earth’. It is up to each and every one of us to protect Earth not just because we care about the natural world, but because we live on it. Our volunteer writer, Meryl Batchelder, considers how we can encourage young people to use innovative thinking to come up with creative solutions to make our future brighter.
Save the date – 22 April is Earth Day
In the spring of 1970, when I was a mere babe in arms, Senator Gaylord Nelson created Earth Day as a way to force the issues of air and water pollution on to the national agenda in the United States. Twenty million Americans demonstrated in different cities and it worked! President Nixon proposed the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on 9 July, 1970. Since then 22 April each year has come to mark a global event called Earth Day.
The Largest Activism Event in the World
More than 1 billion people in over 190 countries participate in Earth Day activities each year; that’s one in eight people, making it the largest activism event in the world. As the climate crisis becomes more alarming, each Earth Day that comes along takes on extra significance. We might have recognised Earth needed protecting back in 1970 but five decades later our planet is in a worse state than ever. Figures show that global CO2 emissions are now above pre-pandemic levels, despite all the talk of ‘nature healing’ during lockdown. The 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP26), to be held in Glasgow this year, says we need to dramatically cut emissions by an estimated 45 per cent by 2030 to keep global warming to 1.5°C, the magnitude of the challenge we’re facing is clear. For Earth Day 2021, President Biden has recently invited 40 world leaders to take part in a virtual summit on 22 and 23 April to highlight the urgency for stronger climate action.
Seeing Environmental Issues in a Positive Light
We are facing a huge number of problems; from plastic pollution in the deepest ocean trenches to the microplastics on the highest mountain tops, from desertification in the Sahel to deforestation of the Amazon, to the climate crisis causing forest fires in Siberia to the melting ice cap in Antarctica. Globally we have issues with food production, over fishing, biodiversity collapse, soil erosion, droughts and floods… there are so many issues that it can feel overwhelming especially to younger generations. But, humans are creative and flexible, we know what causes these problems and we can measure the effects, but most importantly, we can also solve them.
So, how can we get young people in school to learn and understand the issues without being overcome with eco-anxiety?
In my school we turn the problems on their heads and consider it as an opportunity to use innovative thinking to help come up with solutions, ideas and create their own projects – giving them ownership and a sense of reward. Throughout the year we have STEAM Challenges, CREST Awards, competitions, debates, visiting STEM Ambassadors, careers days, assemblies, school gardening and we also raise money for environmental charities. Keeping myself and my students busy year-round seems like the best medicine to combat any sense of doom and gloom.
Here are four different ideas to help mark Earth Day in your school but obviously they can also be used on any other day in the teaching calendar.
Finding Solutions in Nature – Innovative Thinking
Biomimicry is the design and production of materials and structures that are modelled on biological entities or processes. An example is Japan’s Bullet Train, one of the fastest in the world, which had a problem with air pressure changes causing huge sound booms every time it exited a tunnel. The train’s shape needed a solution and inspiration came from a bird’s beak. The kingfisher is a predator that can dive into the water without splashing and causes so little disturbance to the surface that fish don’t know what’s coming – the solution was a simple redesign of the front of the train to be more pointed – problem solved! In D&T or Science lessons you could set your pupils a problem (eg plastic in the ocean), and ask them how a living organism or natural process could solve it; they might come up with how the baleen in a whale can be used as filter, or how the beak of a pelican can be used as a scoop. In my experience young people use blue-sky thinking time far better than I do.
Another way to think is to animate materials, which are human-made materials, that emulate the properties of living systems. These materials are able to grow and adapt to their environment and could extend the lifespan of electronic devices, medical implants and infrastructure such as roads or rail tracks. Imagine roads which can self-heal, tiny robotic molecules which can assemble themselves into household objects or living buildings which harvest carbon dioxide to generate power and purify water. The ability of animate materials to autonomously react to their environment could improve the sustainability of the materials we use day to day and aid the transition to a more circular economy. The Royal Society has an ongoing project on animate materials; can you explain the idea to your pupils and let them think of any new applications?
Natural Processes – Getting Active Outside
Natural solutions to the climate crisis include conservation, restoration and improved land management that increase carbon storage or avoid greenhouse gas emissions in landscapes and wetlands across the globe. In school you can make living walls, plant shade giving trees to cool pavements, grow your own food so that pupils understand the issues with food miles, plastic packaging or food waste and then use any peelings to make our own compost as an alternative to peat compost.
You could discuss the joys of regenerative agriculture which focuses on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing ecosystems, supporting biosequestration and using nature to increase resilience to climate change. If you give pupils time outside with nature they grow alongside the plants. School gardening in the fresh air is probably one of the best ways to catch up with lost experiences from lockdown – the RHS Schools website has some blooming wonderful ideas on how to get started. Gardening links to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (or Global Goals): SDG2 Zero Hunger, SDG15 Life on Land and SDG13 Climate Action.
Green Technologies – Hands-On Design
There are going to be a huge number of positions and a vast array of jobs in green technology over the coming years. Solar power, wind power, electric cars, sustainable urban drainage systems, plant-based packaging as an alternative to plastic, carbon capture and storage and a whole load of roles we haven’t even thought of yet. This term I was teaching Forces and Motion, and we linked the topic to SDG9: Innovation, Industry and Infrastructure; pupils then were given the challenge to design a new sustainable transport system for the North East – they came up with everything from horse drawn carriages called by an app, solar-powered buses and underwater trains. Building models can really help students engage with the engineering design process: ask the problem, research, imaging, plan and design, create and build, test and evaluate, redesign and improve through to communication of the idea and then back round again.
Practical Action schools have a wide selection of different hands-on challenges to promote problem solving and innovative thinking. The ones that have worked best for us are the squashed tomato challenge, the smoke free cooker, ditch the dirt and the wind turbine – all can be linked to the Global Goals. Their activities also provide opportunity to incorporate Global Learning into lessons so pupils understand we have a whole range of people to learn from and have open minds to think beyond the walls of the classroom.
Climate Literacy - Read (and Write) All About It
Climate literacy is an understanding of our influence on climate and climate’s influence on us and can be used across the curriculum. A climate-literate person understands the essential principles of Earth’s climate system, knows how to assess scientifically credible information about climate, communicates about climate and climate change in a meaningful way, and is able to make informed and responsible decisions with regard to actions that may affect climate.
There are a growing number of books aimed at young people on the climate crisis. Getting pupils reading so they comprehend the issues but also recognise they are not alone and which positive actions they can take is essential. Once they have an understanding learning how best to communicate their ideas is a wonderful way to alleviate stress (I should know, it’s why I write for CDEC). The World’s Largest Lesson is running an exciting campaign to write a 100 word message for pupils to explain why a climate education matters to them which would be fantastic to run as an Earth Day project in school.
There are thousands of events taking place for Earth Day in 2021. EarthDay.org has produced a handy toolkit to help you get involved, whether that’s organising a teach-in to educate people on the challenges we’re facing or a clean-up to help tackle the piles of rubbish being left behind in nature’s spaces as people come back outside after lockdown. On their website there are graphic logos to promote any events you have and advocacy packs providing help for teachers or to encourage activism.
The site also has a list of different projects to pick and choose from including the Canopy project, food and environment - regenerative agriculture, global cleanup, climate literacy and the Global Earth challenge campaign which uses a mobile app to collect billions of observations in air quality, water quality, insect populations, climate change, plastic pollution and food sustainability.
Love the Pale Blue Dot
You might argue that every day is Earth Day but a billion people all acting together for a better world on one day of the year is definitely something to celebrate and to be part of. In his book, Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan commented on what he sees as the greater significance of a tiny blue speck on a picture taken 6 billion kilometres away in deep space – the speck is Earth. The book is well worth a read but there are two specific quotes that stand out:
“Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”
Nature can heal itself up to a point – just look at how grass grows between the paving stones. However, if we continue to take it for granted, we will lose much of the rich biodiversity and ambient climate we have grown used to on our Pale Blue Dot. To restore our Earth we also have to change the way we live; making compromises to reduce our carbon footprints, seeking social and environment justice, using innovative thinking and most importantly working together as global citizens. This world is still our oyster and by looking after Earth, Earth will in return look after us. Happy Earth Day!
- 51 ideas for Earth Day
- Practical Action STEM Challenges
- World’s Largest Lesson 100 word challenge
- Animate Materials
For older readers
- Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan
- Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty
- No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg
- A Guide to Eco Anxiety by Anouchka Grose
- Turning the Tide on Plastic: How Humanity (And You) Can Make Our Globe Clean Again by Lucy Siegle
- A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough and Jonnie Hughes
- Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future by Mary Robinson
For younger readers
- Guardians of the Planet: How to be an Eco-Hero by Clive Gifford and Jonathan Woodward
- The Story of Climate Change by Catherine Barr and Steve Williams
- Climate Action by Georgina Stevens
- Protect the Planet! By Jess French