I’m growing increasingly unnerved by manmade calamities. I live in South Florida, and if the polar icecaps continue to melt, in 20-30 years my home will be covered by ocean. Hunger, poverty and preventable or curable diseases continue to plague many third-world countries.
Increasingly, it appears that today’s youth will be most responsible for making a real and lasting difference. In May, I spoke about these issues with Tony Wagner, the eminent education reformer and recent author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. In particular, I asked if schools are doing enough to promote good environmental stewards.
“No, not at all. I think that’s a huge education issue,” Wagner says. “I think ecology ought to be a required science to study instead of biology and chemistry,” Wagner says. “I think that we need to understand the ecosystem we live in. It’s a part of human health and wellbeing. We teach health and wellness, but we don’t teach planet health and wellness.”
For the most part, I agree with Wagner. Too many schools simply preach environmentalism instead of helping students act to make this world a better place. But for several years now, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) has been doing a tremendous job of encouraging teachers and students to make a real difference.
The NAIS Challenge 20/20 matches schools in the United States with partners around the world, all in an effort to find local solutions to global problems. The program was inspired by Jean-Francois Rischard’s High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them.
“The demographic force can be described in one short sentence: we will go from an already overstretched planet of 5 billion people in 1990 and 6 billion people today to about 8 billion by 2020-2025—in less than one generation,” Rischard writes.
If we hope to keep our planet sustainable, clearly educators and students have our work cut out for us.
I’m thrilled that The Brookwood School in Manchester, MA, is helping to lead the way. As part of the Challenge 20/20, students there work with others in Brazil to address the many health issues associated with burning wood and charcoal for heating and cooking. “Breathing in the smoke from these fires contributes to nearly 2 million deaths from respiratory illness per year,” one slide says.
Students also spend lots of time investigating the environmental effects of biomass use, including deforestation and global warming.
At Brookwood, Rich Lehrer’s 8th-grade science class connects with schools around the world, learning about the science and engineering principles involved in efficient biomass cook stoves. I recently spoke with Lehrer, who speaks with tremendous enthusiasm about how his students engage in global learning that makes the world a better place.
“Most of the concepts I would have been teaching anyway—energy transformations, energy efficiency and combustion, heat transfer and things like that—I taught through the project while my kids would communicate with the students in Uganda, Rwanda, and Brazil, who were building and analyzing the same stoves,” he says.
This year, Lehrer hopes to broaden the types of initiatives his kids will be discussing and working on. He has about 10 different projects in mind, including promoting girls’ global education and promoting solar-lantern projects in Africa. Without question, Lehrer epitomizes the type of creativity and initiative that the best 21st-century teachers emulate.
“Part of the exciting thing is that we are venturing on uncharted territory, not just with the idea of using efficient stoves as learning tools, but having kids in developing and developed countries be connected in these ways,” Lehrer says.
Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting with Paul Miller, who serves as Director of Global Initiatives for NAIS. Miller is in charge of the Challenge 20/20, and he’s one of the most forward-thinking and open-minded individuals I’ve ever met. He is hugely passionate about encouraging students to explore issues that are global in nature, and cannot be solved by one country or one region.
“There are critical problems that are facing the entire world, and the thinking is that it’s not sufficient to wait for students to graduate, get jobs, and reach a point where they might have sufficient authority to address any of the these issues,” Miller says. “What we really need is for them to start addressing these issues right away. They can do so in their local communities. One of the ways that allows them to work their way to that point is the Challenge 20/20 Program.”
I also love that any type of school can get involved, not just NAIS-member institutions. This is an excellent way for the independent school community to reach out to the wider world of education, and to build friendly, cooperative and strong bridges in the name of effective 21st-century teaching. I also deeply admire Miller’s emphasis on individual learning, and how students need to tackle these problems head on.
“What we’re telling the kids is, ‘You look into these problems. You do the research yourself. You decided what it is that’s of concern to you. You work together to try to think about solutions that you could come up with in your own local communities.’”