In late November, students in Leamington District Secondary School’s hospitality and tourism class deviated from their regular coursework to learn about the climate risk posed by food waste — and how to reduce it. The lesson was not part of the curriculum. Instead, it was a pilot lesson researched and developed by a group of students on the school’s EcoTeam, a club for those who want to take action to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
This year, 20 members of the EcoTeam identified a dearth of climate change education in the high school curriculum, and decided to fix it. They started developing lessons for three technological education classes — hospitality and tourism, construction technology, and transportation technology — and plan to roll them out by March 2022, before moving onto lessons for courses such as business and math.
“We’re motivated, and we see the impact climate change is having on the world,” says Nicolas Lougheed, a Grade 11 student and EcoTeam member who has been working on the transportation lesson. He points out the students have been working on their lessons in a year in which British Columbia suffered from devastating heat, wildfires, and floods. “We feel like we should spread that information so people are more educated on the topic. We’re just passionate about the subject and feel like if we work hard enough, we can make a difference.”
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EcoTeam members have spent months researching their chosen subjects and interviewing experts to develop professional lesson plans. They are solutions-focused and need to meet curriculum expectations. Students in construction will learn about the net-zero homebuilding industry and watch an interview with a local contractor. The transportation lesson is still in development, but students plan to focus on electric- and hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles. Hospitality students, after learning about the climate impact of food waste, will be asked to develop a plant-based recipe using locally sourced ingredients that need to be used up before they spoil.
Maya Brandner, a Grade 9 student and EcoTeam member who worked on the hospitality lesson, says the project can educate other students as well as the broader community. “Some teachers and even my parents and grandparents: they don’t know a lot about climate change,” she says. “The goal of these lessons is to help teach students now so they can teach their parents and younger generations, too.”
Climate change content gets “limited class time,” according to a 2019 survey by Lakehead University, the market research company Leger, and Learning for a Sustainable Future — a Canadian charity that works to integrate sustainability education into the school system. The survey combined responses from Leger’s survey panel — made up of Canadian students, parents, teachers, school administrators, and the public — as well as from teachers who received the survey through LSF.
Roughly 33 per cent of educators in Leger’s panel and 59 per cent of educators who responded through LSF reported teaching any climate change content. Among those who did, most taught their students between one and 10 hours of climate change content per year or semester.
In Ontario, the high school curriculum only addresses climate change directly in Grade 10 science (last updated in 2008) and Grade 9 geography (last updated in 2018). Other courses nod to environmental considerations. “It’s not enough to get a good perspective. And a lot has changed since 2008, based on climate awareness and the climate crisis itself, so our curriculum needs to reflect that,” says Cara Braun, a Grade 12 student working on a lesson for the school’s construction class. “Education is the first step to solving any problem…so we want to work towards more climate education in our school system.”
In an email to TVO,org, a spokesperson for education minister Stephen Lecce says Ontario already mandates some focus on climate change. “We recognize that learning about protecting our air, land, and water, addressing climate change, and reducing the amount of litter and waste in our communities is important to students. That's why our government launched the Youth Environment Council to get young Ontarians involved to help find solutions to some of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time, including climate change and conservation expansion.”
Curriculum revisions in the past few years have introduced more opportunities to learn about environmental issues. The Grade 3 health and physical education class curriculum, for example, expects students to understand how food consumption and disposal can affect the environment.
The majority of teachers surveyed by Lakehead and LSF say they should be teaching more climate change education, but want more help, such as professional development, up-to-date information, and curriculum policies.
Lisa Jeffrey, Leamington District Secondary School’s science teacher and EcoTeam supervisor, says she has heard that as well. “Some people are new to the topic or new to teaching,” Jeffrey says. “They might want to do it but the whole task seems so daunting. We thought if we prepared at least one lesson in each course to show teachers the connection, and give them everything they need, it makes it so much easier to start.”
The school has a long history of environmental activism. It has been designated as an eco-school by EcoSchools Canada since 2006 for its sustainability efforts. Students take part in local environmental initiatives, including water quality testing, marsh monitoring, and working on regional wetland and forest restoration with the local conservation authority and Caldwell First Nation. The school’s 42-member EcoTeam, which was founded in 2005, has also been recognized with national awards from RBC and Staples for its environmental advocacy.
Joe Youssef, the school’s hospitality teacher, says he immediately saw the value in the EcoTeam lesson. He is currently working on a grading rubric for the food waste lesson. “I felt compelled,” he says. “It makes sense and it’s something we need to do.”
Students are already interested in sustainability and other climate-related topics like plant-based eating, Youssef says. He hears from students every year who hope to focus on vegetarian or plant-based meals in class. “Teenagers are more aware and they’re coming to me before I even say anything,” he says.
Once the lessons have been piloted and refined, the team plans to take them to the Greater Essex County District School Board to discuss rolling them out to other high schools. It is also considering releasing them as an open-source resource for teachers to integrate into their classes and customize based on local context.
But Braun, the Grade 12 student, says her long-term hope is that the province updates the curriculum — and makes the EcoTeam’s work obsolete. “Students should be learning this stuff in school, and not teaching other students,” she says. “Hopefully it will be more widespread and be actually integrated into the curriculum, because that will make it much easier for teachers and easier for students.”
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