By Dr Sami G al-Ghamdi, PhD
This is in response to HE the Minister of Education and Higher Education, Buthaina bint Ali al-Jabr al-Nuaimi’s call for addressing new challenges in education.
I applaud her speech and want to add that there is a particularly urgent need in education to cultivate sustainable thinking in the new generation. Our students will become future leaders, responsible for making important decisions regarding sustainable development. Thus, engaging and educating our students about social and environmental challenges and their interconnectedness is critical.
Unfortunately, our traditional education systems are deficient in delivering sustainability concepts, suitably or accurately. Although 86% of US teachers believe climate change should be taught, 55% do not cover the topic and of those, 65% do not teach climate change because it is outside their subject area. The same is true in the GCC region. Without receiving sufficient knowledge of sustainability concepts, how can we expect our students to strive in promoting sustainability within their homes, communities, and our region?
To improve science education in the US, a US consortium developed the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). These standards have been widely adopted in the US and in the GCC and aim to allow local educators flexibility in designing learning experiences that motivate students to take an interest in science and better prepare them for university, careers, and citizenship.
In my opinion, as an educator, these standards:
l Prioritise teaching about a global system rather than what sustainability challenges really look like at the local level. These standards depict that all humans equally contribute to, or suffer from, sustainability challenges. Yet, we see in the media everyday how sustainability-related problems afflict some humans more than others, so the NGSS’s universal perspective can easily translate to misunderstanding of issues by students.
l Emphasise that sustainability challenges can best be understood and tackled through quantitative methods and natural sciences. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subjects are given importance over the social dimensions of sustainability, thus misleading students into thinking sustainability issues are primarily problems to be solved by scientists, mathematicians, engineers, or requiring a technological solution. Students need to learn that sustainability issues are extraordinarily complex socio-scientific problems requiring a variety of types of knowledge.
These standards fall short in providing students with a strong awareness of the social complexity of sustainability issues and lack a strong ethical component. If students do not learn about how political and social structures add to the challenges of sustainability, they will not be sufficiently prepared to solve problems that require them to consider information from multiple sources as well as balance multiple needs.
As sustainability concepts cut across many disciplines, in adopting these standards, the GCC K-12 educational systems should take an interdisciplinary approach in developing sustainability curricula, i.e., a systematic collaboration between STEM educators and educators of other disciplines, while also customising curricula so local and regional sustainability issues are addressed, including those social and ethical dimensions important to the communities of the GCC. Moreover, developing sustainability curricula also requires educators to collaborate on all aspects of sustainability-focused lessons, from planning and designing to implementation.
So how can this be done? One way is to take graduate-level researchers outside their academic community and get them involved with the broader community through community outreach. This can serve as a vital training programme for research group members, teaching them to become sustainability advocates in their own communities after graduating as well as provide the broader community with expertise to tackle local sustainability issues.
As an example, within the College of Science and Engineering (CSE) at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), I developed Sustainability for Children, an innovative outreach initiative aimed at the K-12 schools in Qatar. Leading the CSE’s Sustainable Built Environment (SBE) research group, our members deliver year-round programmes to young learners, in our local community, that focus on awareness and issues about the environment and sustainability in a local and regional context.
During full-day workshops, we provide fun activities and discussions on topics such as healthy eating and gardening as well as engaging young learners in debates, mini conferences, conducting experiments, etc. on a variety of aspects of the built environment like energy, water, resource recycling and climate change, including their social and ethical dimensions.
Our outreach also extends to supporting schools’ student groups in their research projects and competitions as well as helping K-12 teachers adapt their curricula with more sustainability content. Some of the representative events we have successfully hosted (pertinent to sustainability at the local and regional level) that could easily be adapted by other educational institutions in the GCC, include Carbon Cycle & Mangrove Forests: The Role of Marine Life in Climate Balance; The Story of Water: The Complex Challenge of Sustainable Water; Sustainability in the World Cup 2022: Towards Sustainable Buildings in Qatar.
(For more information or questions regarding the research and outreach initiatives of the SBE research group, please contact Dr Sami G al-Ghamdi, PhD, Associate Professor, Sustainable Development Division, College of Science & Engineering, Hamad Bin Khalifa University (E-mail: [email protected]))
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