Today’s post is by Dr Karen Kerr, a previous science teacher and now lecturer in education at Queen’s University Belfast.  Karen teaches future science teachers and is involved in research in outdoor learning and environmental education, with a specific focus on researching with children and young people.  Karen is also a member of the Education for Sustainable Development Forum in Northern Ireland and works with many partners across the UK. As ever, the views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily those of NAEE.

Recently, I was honored to carry out an external evaluation of Ulster Wildlife’s Grassroots Challenge programme and to speak to the young people involved about their views, opinions and concerns about environmental issues and actions.  Their messages were loud and clear – we want to make a difference for nature but need more opportunities to do so!

The Grassroots Challenge programme has been running since 2015 and gives young people in Northern Ireland, aged 11 – 24, the opportunity to gain essential skills, knowledge and training to take action for wildlife in their local area, whilst also improving their confidence, employability and well-being.  The overall aim of the programme is to link with established structures and groups to offer opportunities for young people to develop skills and knowledge and to design and deliver environmental projects that will enhance their local area and engage their communities in environmental action. 

It is a five-year programme and will run until March 2021.  The programme involves three specific groups of young people in Northern Ireland: Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster, young people taking part in various Duke of Edinburgh’s Award schemes and young people who attend several Special Schools.  The programme also has an established Youth Forum.  Representatives from these groups participated in the evaluation and shared their views, opinions and concerns about environmental issues and actions.

The Grassroots Challenge programme is one of 31 projects across the UK, which make up the ‘Our Bright Future’ partnership.  This is a National Lottery Community Funded partnership led by the Wildlife Trusts, bringing together the youth and environmental sectors.  I was fortunate enough to be invited to what can only be described as an uplifting Virtual Awards Ceremony for the Grassroots Challenge programme in November – it is well worth checking out.  Young people and unsung heroes from across the programme were awarded for their impressive work for nature since the programme began!  The Virtual Awards Ceremony also included a video summary of my evaluation report on the Grassroots Challenge programme as well as a moving speech from Dara McAnulty, age 16.  Dara recently published his debut award-winning nature book, ‘The Diary of a Young Naturalist’.  A truly inspiring young man!

The young people involved in the evaluation of the Grassroots Challenge programme reported that they were more connected to nature, rated their leadership competence as higher as well as their ability to influence environmental policy decisions.  They also recognised that making a difference for nature makes a difference for them. 

They were very positive about the Grassroots Challenge programme, in relation to the activities, the benefits of these and the staff involved.  They said they now understand the importance of such activities and would like to do more! Young people said they want to make a difference for nature but cited a lack of opportunities and/or the promotion of existing ones as a major issue.  They would like to see more Grassroots Challenge type projects and activities and propose that “support” should come from Government and local authorities to include funding and education initiatives, particularly in school.  The evaluation report concluded that young people would like to be involved in making a difference for nature, there is a very clear message that there are not enough opportunities nor mechanisms to do so. 

These views tie in well with wider initiatives, driven by young people, such as Teach the Future.  Through this campaign, young people across the UK are calling for a review of the teaching of the climate emergency and ecological crises, teacher training, priority for sustainability in school inspections and a new emergency act of parliament.

The Grassroots Challenge Youth Forum have also been busy representing the young people of Northern Ireland on the Our Bright Future Campaign – More than 300 young people answered the question: ‘If you could change one thing for you and the environment, what would this be?’  In addition, 700 ideas were collected from young people and youth workers during eight events and youth-led research.  Three ‘Asks’ arose from this work:

Ask 1: more time spent learning in and about nature

Ask 2: support to get into environmental jobs

Ask 3: policy makers, employers, businesses, schools and charities to pay more attention to the needs of young people and the environment

Our young people are shouting their messages from the rooftops and we have a duty to support our current and future custodians of the Earth.  The evaluation of the Grassroots Challenge programme presents a real proof of concept for such important work with children and young people and, like Ask 3, calls on policy makers and stakeholders to sit up, take notice, and make more of these opportunities available to more young people.  Now is the time for action and we are lucky to have a strong army of young people who are willing and able to fight for our planet!


Dr Karen Kerr can be contacted at and is happy to share an electronic copy of the Grassroots Challenge evaluation report.

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