Thursday, March 29, 2018

Why we should embed sustainability into STEM/STEAM education

Sustainability + STEAM, they just make sense together. STEAM (Science, technology, engineering, art and math) are popular educational priorities these days. And no wonder. Technology and engineering are major drivers of our economy and social change. We believe that these topics in isolation miss an important element. They are not an end in themselves; they could be directed toward good or evil. What’s needed is a vision of what they are intended to solve or contribute to. That’s where sustainability comes in.  Here are three reasons why S+STEAM is better than STEAM alone.

Solve world problems

Lots of students in STEM/STEAM classes learn how to build robots. That’s fine but we don’t want robots just to have robots. Ideally they solve important local and world problems.

If STEAM training starts with an analysis of ways their communities and the world are unsustainable, it brings relevance to the education. Students can choose issues they care about and think about how they can build robots or other technologies to address these problems. Can they build technologies to identify recyclables or invasive species, clean water or power a light bulb in poor communities, or even solve climate change?

One inspiring example is Heirs to Oceans. It is a group formed by enterprising home-schooled kids in the Bay Area. They are passionate about the seas and climate change. They, with the help of some grown-ups, created this podcast about their program:

Kids/parents from all over the world can join their efforts here:

Programs like these energize kids to learn and help them find their calling in life.

Avoid unintended consequences

Humans are great at solving one problem while creating several more. It’s a function of simplistic cause-effect thinking. In contrast, sustainability brings a systems view, a more circular system where, for example, human activity pollutes the water and the water harms people. You’re called upon to consider how systems are interconnected and to find leverage points where a small action can make a big positive difference. And it helps students to foresee potential actions and reactions.

Your students will enjoy a cautionary tale like the Cats in Borneo which is explained in this short video:

Borneo contacted the World Bank to help them address malaria. The World Bank’s solution killed the mosquitoes but their solution also led to roofs collapsing and cats dying. Then the rat population exploded resulting in an outbreak of plague. Watch the video to find out how these effects were connected.

Benefit from a toolbox of innovative practices

There’s a commonly referenced Einstein quotation, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” A corollary could be that you can’t solve problems with the same approaches. Sustainability and systems thinking brings a new set of tools for finding innovative solutions.

Waters Foundation is a good source for information on systems thinking in language appropriate to children. Here’s a link to their 14 Habits of a Systems Thinker. These tools aren’t just for mature kids. There’s a wonderful video (that I can’t find online anymore) of pre-schoolers using a causal loop diagram to explain how being mean to another child can create more problems.  This link will take you to an example of very young kids using behavior over time graphs.

Like STEAM, systems thinking is a tool (a means) that should be paired with sustainability (an end). However the sustainability field has a set of useful tools as well. Here are a few that might be inspiring to students:

The four Natural Step principles (system conditions) for a sustainable society were developed by scientists to get at the root of what a society needs to do to be both environmentally and socially sustainable. There are some wonderful short videos on YouTube from Sustainability Illustrated that can explain sustainability and these 4 principles in several minutes.

Biomimicry is the practice of using nature as an inspiration for how to design our products and processes. On the Biomimicry Institute, you can use their Ask Nature database of biological solutions. These are already gaining traction in the real world: swimsuits designed with sharkskin to reduce drag, paints that clean themselves like a lotus leaf, and surgical glue inspired by slug slime.

The Circular Economy is recycling on steroids, a society where everything is either used again, consumed or safely composted. That society doesn’t exist yet but Europe and China are both working on projects related to this concept. A related concept is industrial ecology or industrial symbiosis, where an industrial park is designed such that the waste of one operation because input to another.

“A fertilizer factory is fed with vinasse, a byproduct of sugar, from a nearby beer brewery. A paper and pulp plant receives scrap wood from a nearby wood factory as input, while providing sludge for fertilizer, green mud for building materials, white sludge for a citric acid factory and a cement plant, wood chips for a charcoal factory, fly ash for a cement plant, and waste hot water for an aquaculture mill.” 

If you want to learn more, come to our Sustainability in Schools Symposium.

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