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How Can We Make Sustainability Matter to Youth?

Children Walking Green WoodsThis was the question posed to a panel at the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week 2014. Comprised of educators, scholars and students, the group floated ideas for how sustainability cannot only gain exposure to students in their educational career, but ingrain its importance at an earlier age to make subsequent generations better equipped to deal with the environmental and societal challenges we face.

The panel spoke at length about the need for promoting awareness surrounding sustainability to the education of all ages. There's nothing to disagree with there. In looking at my own educational trek I think the biggest emphasis on sustainability came in grade school programs to promote recycling before sliding to the back stage of my high school experience. As surprising as it seems, sustainability was virtually absent in my undergraduate architectural education–a trend that thankfully seems to be changing.

Programs like the Zayed Future Energy Prize help take the important first step of offering exposure to students when it comes to larger sustainability issues and cementing them in the educational environment. The prize program chooses up to five schools, each from a different continental region around the world. One of this year's five winners was the Bronx Design & Construction Academy, receiving a prize of $100,000 to realize their proposal of a student designed solar panel array and an off-grid greenhouse — so I got to have some local pride in Bronx representation.

But with the degree of change that we need to achieve, educational engagement of sustainability needs to go to the next level.

"Sustainability has to become part of standard curricula and metrics of good teaching need to reflect its inclusion," says Louisa Connaughton, currently teaching fifth grade at the Buckingham Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With over 9 years of experience teaching younger students, Connaughton questions the traditional micro-to-macro style of American curricula. "Adjusting from micro to macro would not only bring people's world into immediate focus, but it would also spread the understanding that we do not exist in a vacuum." In a global society, sustainability is a macro-scaled issue that supersedes the boundaries of specific study areas.

ADSW 2014 Panel Zayed

Zayed Future Energy Prize Panel at ADSW 2014

Helping to facilitate those that find and profess an interest in pursuing sustainable studies is fantastic and hopefully something that's being done more often at more institutions, but that mentality still treats sustainability as a niche focus rather than a necessary component of organized education. Many consider the sciences as a prime target for integrating sustainability teachings and Ms. Connaughton agrees. "Science curricula could include more about earth, climate and environmental science, not as an add-on but as core subjects," but she also sees opportunity to incorporate the concepts into social studies and history with some curriculum tweaks.

To be fair, even as a scientist that has grown to center his career around sustainable goals–evidenced by being honored with the Zayed Future Energy Prize Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013, Professor Jose Goldemberg offered that "Sustainability is still a relatively modern concept."

Essentially serving as formal synopsis of cultural values, curricula have always been debated with passion commensurate with their importance. As the slow process of curriculum evolution begins, there is still an opportunity for designers to help craft the major role that the built environment can play in promoting sustainability, especially in educational settings. Classrooms should be a focal point for our green building efforts. Teaching in spaces that embody sustainability can only help teachers convey those values in practice. But in order to do that, architecture students should be better educated about sustainability's relationship to the built environment.

As a Visiting Assistant Professor of Architecture at Louisiana State University, Shelby Doyle points out the task of architecture's ability to not only create progressive solutions that spark conversations, but ones that make an impact. "Teaching sustainability to architecture students has several challenges: first deciding whether sustainability is the proper conceptual framework, and if so defining it, and second presenting actionable and viable design practices. The breadth of  global environmental conditions is daunting, these are issues that are intrinsically linked to our political and economic systems. The pressing question in sustainable design education is how to make design a meaningful agent of change at a scale where it influences practice outside of the discipline." I have talked before how architects and environmentalists similarly struggle at breaking their dialogue outside of their historically insular professions.

Autumn Willow School Buildings

The Willow School

I remember making a trip to the Willow School in Gladstone, New Jersey with its campus dedicated to sustainable realization. From utilizing stones from old barns for new building walls, to its healthy finishes and low-flow fixtures, to reclaimed telephone poles as light posts, the school made certain to devote resources towards making sure that the physical campus was not at odds with the values of the teaching program, but instead comprising a common message.

Despite all of the effort put into the built environment, completed with LEED Certification and solar panels, I found one of the most educational tools to be motion sensor lights in the classrooms. Why? Because if the class is actually sitting still long enough and the lights happen to go off, kids wonder why. The conversation can revolve around actual patterns of usage, why that's important and how their lives create repercussions beyond their immediate surroundings.

The bottom line is that we are past a degree of severity that can rely only on non-profit environmental outreach and lethargic governmental action. Sustainability's importance cannot be conveyed to youth through disjointed efforts like stray science projects or recycling drives at schools. Importance has to be demonstrated by way of it being a requirement to progress through the educational system. Tenets of lifecycle analysis or natural resource management should move closer to the level of multiplication tables or the great American novel. If action on sustainability is so vital, then how can learning how and why to take action not be as well?

Full Disclosure: Travel expenses to Sustainability Week were covered by Masdar

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