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These high school students are teaching their community about climate change
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These high school students are teaching their community about climate change

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In late November, students in Leamington District Secondary School’s hospitality and tourism class deviated from their regular coursework to learn about the climate risk posed by food waste — and how to reduce it. The lesson was not taught in the school’s curriculum. Instead, it was a pilot lesson researched and developed by a group of students on the school’s EcoTeam, a club for those who want to take action to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

The EcoTeam, which consists of 20 members, identified a gap in climate change education in high schools’ curriculums this school year. They decided to fix it. They started developing lessons for three technological education classes — hospitality and tourism, construction technology, and transportation technology — and plan to roll them out by March 2022, before moving onto lessons for courses such as business and math.

“We’re motivated, and we see the impact climate change is having on the world,” says Nicolas Lougheed, a Grade 11 student and EcoTeam member who has been working on the transportation lesson. He points out that students have been working on lessons in a year of severe heat, wildfires, floods and flooding in British Columbia. “We feel like we should spread that information so people are more educated on the topic. We’re just passionate about the subject and feel like if we work hard enough, we can make a difference.”

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EcoTeam members have spent months researching and interviewing experts in order to create professional lesson plans. They are solution-oriented and must comply with curriculum requirements. Students in construction will learn more about the net zero homebuilding industry and see a interview with a local contractor. While the transportation lesson is still in progress, students plan to concentrate on electric- or hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars. After learning about climate change and food waste, hospitality students will be asked for a plant-based recipe. They will need to use up any leftovers before they spoil.

Maya Brandner (Grade 9 student, EcoTeam member) worked on the hospitality lesson. She believes the project can help educate other students as much as the wider community. “Some teachers and even my parents and grandparents: they don’t know a lot about climate change,” she says. “The goal of these lessons is to help teach students now so they can teach their parents and younger generations, too.”

Climate change content gets “limited class time,” according to a 2019 survey by Lakehead University, the market research company Leger, and Learning for a Sustainable Future — a Canadian charity that works to integrate sustainability education into the school system. The survey combined responses from Leger’s survey panel — made up of Canadian students, parents, teachers, school administrators, and the public — as well as from teachers who received the survey through LSF.

Roughly 33 per cent of educators in Leger’s panel and 59 per cent of educators who responded through LSF reported teaching any climate change content. Most teachers taught between 1 and 10 hours of climate content per semester or year to students.

The Ontario high school curriculum does not address climate change directly in Grade 10, science (last updated 2008), and Grade 9, geography (last updated 2018). Other courses also address environmental issues. “It’s not enough to get a good perspective. And a lot has changed since 2008, based on climate awareness and the climate crisis itself, so our curriculum needs to reflect that,” says Cara Braun, a Grade 12 student working on a lesson for the school’s construction class. “Education is the first step to solving any problem…so we want to work towards more climate education in our school system.” was informed by Stephen Lecce, a spokesperson for the education minister, that Ontario already requires a focus on climate change. “We recognize that learning about protecting our air, land, and water, addressing climate change, and reducing the amount of litter and waste in our communities is important to students. That’s why our government launched the Youth Environment Council to get young Ontarians involved to help find solutions to some of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time, including climate change and conservation expansion.”

In recent years, curriculum revisions have made it easier to learn about environmental issues. For example, Grade 3’s health and physical education class curriculum requires students to understand how food disposal and consumption can impact the environment.

Lakehead and LSF found that the majority of teachers surveyed said they should be teaching climate change education more, but they also want to receive more support, such as professional training and up-to-date information and curriculum policies.

Lisa Jeffrey, Leamington District Secondary School’s science teacher and EcoTeam supervisor, says she has heard that as well. “Some people are new to the topic or new to teaching,” Jeffrey says. “They might want to do it but the whole task seems so daunting. We thought if we prepared at least one lesson in each course to show teachers the connection, and give them everything they need, it makes it so much easier to start.”

The school has a long history in environmental activism. EcoSchools Canada has designated it an eco-school since 2006. This is in recognition of its sustainability efforts. Students are involved in local environmental initiatives such as water quality testing, marsh monitoring and working with Caldwell First Nation on regional wetland restoration. The school’s 42-member EcoTeam, which was founded in 2005, has also been recognized with national awards from RBCAnd StaplesIt is known for its environmental advocacy.

Joe Youssef, the school’s hospitality teacher, says he immediately saw the value in the EcoTeam lesson. He is currently working on a food waste lesson grading rubric. “I felt compelled,” he says. “It makes sense and it’s something we need to do.”

Yousef says that sustainability and other climate-related topics are already a popular topic with students. Every year, he hears from students who want to focus in class on vegetarian or plant-based meals. “Teenagers are more aware and they’re coming to me before I even say anything,” he says.

After the lessons have been tested and refined, the team will take them to the Greater Essex County District Schools Board to discuss their possible expansion to other high schools. They are also being considered for release as an open-source resource to teachers to use in their classes, and adapt according to local context.

But Braun, the Grade 12 student, says her long-term hope is that the province updates the curriculum — and makes the EcoTeam’s work obsolete. “Students should be learning this stuff in school, and not teaching other students,” she says. “Hopefully it will be more widespread and be actually integrated into the curriculum, because that will make it much easier for teachers and easier for students.”

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