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We see at least four benefits in embedding sustainability principles into STEM/STEAM programs:
Innovation should be directed toward solving the world's problems. Teaching kids to build robots is fine, but what about having them build robots that can clean up an oil spill, plant trees, or open doors for amputees? Sustainability, writ large, encompasses all the big problems of the world. Linking STEAM and sustainability can increase student engagement. They want to be part of the solution, not a helpless recipient of previous generations' mishaps.
Systems thinking reduces unintended consequences. Too often we have solved one problem only to create a bigger one. Think of DDT or the pesticide/food production/bee problem. Since sustainability involves looking at the interconnections between the environment, economy and community, it reduces the chance that innovations will have serious unintended consequences. At a minimum sustainable thinking will help identify potential consequences so they can be managed.
Sustainability already has a robust toolbox. The typical engineering approach has been called Heat-Beat-Treat. The industrial society has been Take-Make-Waste. Both are unsustainable. We certinaly don't want to be reinforcing that thinking with our youth. Instead sustainability practitioners have developed a large suite of tools that might inspire or inform STEAM projects. For example, biomimicry uses nature as inspiration. Already companies are making paints inspired by the cleaning process of lotus leaves or bullet-proof vests based on the strength of spider filament. Here's a short list of techniques that students could draw upon:
- Circular Economy
- Green Building/Living Building Challenge
- Green Chemistry
- Industrial Ecology