What follows is an account by Juliette Green of the presentations NAEE made at the recent ASE conference.  This will be published in the next NAEE journal (Vol 120) which has a focus on the sustainable development goals.

On Thursday 10thJanuary 2019, NAEE volunteers (Juliette Green, Nina Hatch and Bill Scott) attended the Association for Science Education (ASE)’s annual conference, held at the University of Birmingham. We delivered two workshops – one for early years / primary and one for secondary – which looked at links between environmental education, the 17 SDGs and the curriculum, focusing on science and the other STEM subjects. The conference was also attended by three of NAEE’s Fellows: Lee Jowett (who took part in our primary workshop), Margaret Fleming and Melissa Glackin (who both took part in the secondary workshop).

Both of our sessions were well-received, with a good range of attendees from different educational settings, organisations and countries. We distributed abridged versions of our curriculum documents(naee.org.uk/latest-report-from-naee), NAEE flyers and a copy of our STEM-themed journal Environmental Education 117.

What is environmental education?

Each session began with an introduction to NAEE and our work, followed by an overview of environmental education. Delegates were asked for their thoughts about, and experiences of, environmental education.

Primary educators mentioned forest schools and Eco-Schools, as ways of engaging children in environmental education. One teacher mentioned a scheme of work (tinyurl.com/ybeyb5e9) used by her school where the  module ‘Our Changing World’ runs throughout the science curriculum for every year group. She did, however, note that activities such as monitoring birds and insects in the school grounds presented quite a challenge in the urban area of London where her school was situated.

In the secondary session, delegates talked about the ‘heart’ element of environmental education, i.e. having an emotional connection with the natural world as part of ourselves provides a basis for building more meaningful relationships to work with the natural world more sustainably.

A colleague from a Danish university told us that environmental education is being ‘done’, but is really on the outside of the curriculum. Representatives from the Netherlands said that they had been working with ‘an equivalent NAEE’ who had helped, resourced and supported their work on integrating environmental education into the curriculum.

An curriculum developer from the International Baccalaureate (IB) explained how he had been working on a course called ‘Environmental Systems and Societies’ (tinyurl.com/yb5au3hl). This is the only interdisciplinary course in the IB, approaching the environment from both the scientific and the humanities perspectives. The course is currently available at standard level, but they are working on developing it for a higher level, which will include a focus on the SDGs.

Experiences of the Sustainable Development Goals

The next part of each session was an outline of the SDGs and delegates were then asked about their
experiences of the goals.

A city council environmental education coordinator talked about how schools who ‘do’ the goals well are those who develop a whole-school ethos around the SDGs, by phrasing and delivering their current work and activities in a way that links to sustainability.

We were told about Sandfield Close Primary School in Leicester where the whole school (including pupils, teachers, admin staff, dinner supervisors and cleaners) learned about the goals by filming their own version of the SDG launch film ‘We the People for the Global Goals’(tinyurl.com/nj9fjos).

A UK university-based teacher trainer expressed his disappointment that, at a recent meeting of secondary school heads of science, none of them even knew what the SDGs were. He felt that “geographers know, and are doing, a lot about the goals” and saw it as “an opportunity to bridge the gap between science and geography in schools”.

A curriculum designer pointed out that approaches to the SDGs can be a question of compulsion, i.e. some goals will be in the curriculum because they are culturally or locally important to the needs of the population. For instance, Goal 6 Clean Water and Sanitation is a big strand in sub-Saharan countries’ curricula because it’s important for children to learn about that. Conversely, children in developed countries may not see links between their lives and the goals so clearly.

One of the Education Team at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew explained how they will be launching ’The Big  Question’ in June, linked to their new online schools’ platform ‘Endeavour’ (kew.org/endeavour) and the Kew Science website (tinyurl.com/yajgppbn). Each year, a question will be posed by the Director of Kew, based on a different SDG, starting with Goal 2 Zero Hunger.

A Centre Manager from the Woodcraft Folk explained how the SDGs go hand-in-hand with the values of their organisation(tinyurl.com/ybffbops). Each week, groups across the country explore and unpack the goals, and the SDGs will be the theme of their youth-led international conference in 2020.

A teacher educator from Norway told us that sustainable development has been in the curriculum for a while, but mainly through natural sciences. Since the recent introduction of a new curriculum, it now has a higher status as a general theme.

Curriculum task

The final part of each session was a task where we asked the delegates to work in groups on a task based on NAEE’s curriculum documents. The groups looked at ideas for linking the SDGs with teaching activities, using their own ideas and referring to the relevant curriculum document. Some groups chose to focus on a particular goal (or a few) and link to different parts of the curriculum, while others chose a theme/topic and looked at which goals this would cover. They then fed back and discussed their ideas during a plenary.

The groups in the primary workshop noted that plants and biodiversity are two of the easiest routes into a lot of the SDGs. They found links between studying, growing and cooking/eating plants and the following goals: Goal 2 Zero Hunger; Goal 3 Health & Well-being (both physical health and mental well-being); Goal 5 Gender Equality (fair trade and women); Goal 7 Clean Energy (e.g. food waste for compost or biomass); Goal 11 Sustainable Cities (local fruit and veg production); Goal 12 Responsible Consumption & Production; and Goal 15 Life on Land.

Links were also made between science and other subjects (e.g. studying plants in science also links to PSHE ‘our world’, design and technology making a healthy fruit salad); and between primary and secondary schools (especially those within Trusts), i.e. the study of plants is something that links to the curriculum from 3-year-olds right up to 18-year-olds.

One of the primary groups chose to focus on two particular goals: 12 and 15, and looked at ideas for specific year groups. For example: Year 2 reusing plastic bottles to make bird feeders, and using alternative to plastics (e.g. paper plant pots); Year 3 soils, including composting, the right kind of soils for particular plants, using transparent plastic bottles to create soil layers; Year 6 adaptation and protecting species, encouraging pupils to make links between biodiversity, and why it is important to maintain/conserve it.

One group in the secondary workshop chose Goal 7 Affordable & Clean Energy, and started mapping out the links to different aspects of science subjects. For example physics: forces, mechanics, waves, biomimicry design (e.g. humpback whale fins inspiring the design of wind turbine blades), solar, atomic energy; chemistry: pollution, fossil fuels v renewables; biology: biomass (e.g. studies are being done into whether the invasive water hyacinth could be used as a bio-fuel), photosynthesis (e.g. making low-cost dye sensitized solar cells).

There was a discussion about how secondary science needs to be contextualised into decisions that are taken in the economic world, and political drivers. Some scientific decisions can be economically effective but environmentally disastrous. For example, fossil fuels are heavily subsidised, whereas non-fossils aren’t and are therefore perceived as expensive.

The other group in the secondary session focused on Goal 15 Life on Land, particularly biodiversity, and the importance of linking this to the Required Practicals at GCSE and A-level. A recent examiners’ report stated that RPs are not being done well in schools, due to lack of context. Sustainability environmental education can provide these meaningful, real-life contexts to be explored with students.

It was noted that there are issues with things like trying to get Year 11s to go outside and look at / grow plants – they just don’t want to do it (“it’s just not cool!”). Therefore, teachers need to approach this work in a way that appeals to older students. For example: making seed bombs; carrying out actual improvements to their school grounds; celebration event, e.g. at the city council; getting primary school pupils to come and assess them (“they really up their game!”).

Feedback on the sessions included:

“This was a really thought provoking session that encourages me to bring much bigger goals into our curriculum.”
“Thanks – it was really good to get educators, advisers and other practitioners to identify the common ground in promoting and delivering environmental education.”
“It provoked good participation and conversations with attendees.”
“There were good resources which helpfully stimulated thinking.”