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The safety and continuance of our planet is at risk, and it is the students who will live with what is being done today.
Sustainable development is “development that meets present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UNESCO, 2009, p. 5). The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Associated Schools Project Network was formed in 1953 and has focused on improving the education of children to be global citizens by scaling and disseminating “new educational practices that reinforce the humanistic, ethical and international dimensions of education” (UNESCO, 2009, p. 7). Some of these practices have focused on overpopulation, desertification, indigenous people, HIV and AIDS prevention, and global communication. In 2005, the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005-2014 was declared, and the UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network began developing and sharing curriculum ideas about teaching sustainable development in schools worldwide. In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 (Figure 1) were released and included seventeen fundamental goals (UNESCO, 2018). How are elementary schools in the United States and Japan meeting these goals? How is this being taught in K-6 STEM Centers? The purpose of this article is to introduce sustainable development education and provide guidance to elementary STEM teachers on ways to implement lesson plans in different countries.
Good Practices in Education for Sustainable Development
Anderson and Strecker (2012) state that “the education sector has a critical role to play in imparting the knowledge and skills that lead to behavior change (and) enable individuals and communities to make informed decisions and take action for climate compatible (and) sustainable development” (p. 5). The Executive Summary in the Good Practices in Education for Sustainable Development (UNESCO, 2009) lists six factors that contribute to effective sustainable development education. They are:
1. Identifying common denominators for Education for Sustainable Development.
2. Assuming responsibility for contributing to sustainability.
3. Making education more relevant and more meaningful to strengthen the link between school and society.
4. Building partnerships in support of sustainable development.
5. Developing capacity-building both inside and outside the classroom.
6. Improving the teaching learning process.
In addition to these executive summary statements, education for sustainable development should be locally relevant, stimulate critical thinking, and include use of problem-solving techniques.
Sustainable Development in the United States
Only 51 schools in the U.S. are listed in the Associated Schools Project Network website. Most are private, not public schools. The U.S. Department of State announced in October 2017 that the U.S was withdrawing its membership in UNESCO in December 2018. While these two points may seem discouraging to advocates for sustainable development in the U.S., the work towards the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 goes on unimpeded by individual schools, principals, and teachers. This is because they see the value of sustainable development in the education of their students. Students benefit from being global citizens through a shared sense of belonging to the global community (UNESCO, 2016).
The beginnings of a national focus on sustainability started with the environmental movement in the 1960s in conjunction with the passing of the Clean Air Act of 1963 and Clean Water Act of 1972. This led to the creation at the national level of the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Science Foundation (Hopkins, 2013). Young people across the country demonstrated for a cleaner environment, and support remains strong among the population despite pressure from industries for relaxed environmental regulations. Environmental Studies became and is still a popular undergraduate degree at universities.
The National Council on Science and the Environment (NCSE, n.d.) and the University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (ULSF, n.d.) linked 600 partners and 50 collaborators through meetings, training workshops, events, and a website to advance Education for Sustainable Development in the U.S. The new focus was on unsustainable human activity in the areas of resources, overconsumption, biodiversity loss, climate change, water and air quality, and disaster risk reduction. The release of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013) included multiple ESD-oriented standards on interdependence in ecosystems, biodiversity and humans, human impacts on earth systems, and global climate change.
Technology Education and Elementary STEM
Technology education and STEM teachers have historically included content and practices of resource conservation and the environmental impacts of technologies. The International Technology and Engineering Educators Association (ITEEA, 2000/2002/2007) released Standards for Technological Literacy, which included fourteen specific sustainable development benchmarks for the nation’s elementary STEM teachers to address. They are listed in Table 1 for Grades K-2 or 3-5. Technology or STEM educators design hands-on projects in order to teach these benchmarks to their students.
Many technology education projects begin with critical-thinking questions, discussion, and brainstorming about the impacts of technology. Assessment of student understanding is normal in technology education. STEM education at the elementary level exposes students to a variety of science, engineering, and computer-based concepts. Through this experience, students in Grades K-5 are exposed to real-life problems faced by many people in different parts of the world. Elementary students begin to learn the necessary tools that will allow them to become twenty-first century problem solvers. For example, they develop models on how to filter contaminated water, develop solutions for cleaning oil spills, and they learn computer-based coding. Through early exposure to STEM-related challenges, students are motivated and excited to continue to explore the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Sustainable Development in Elementary STEM Academy
Glenallan Elementary School in Montgomery County, Maryland, serves a low- to middle-income diverse population in a Washington, DC suburb. There are 717 students attending who are 43% Hispanic, 34.6% African American, 10.6% Asian and 8.6% white. For 27% of the student body, English is not their primary language. Fifty-six percent of the students receive free and reduced-price lunch, an indicator of low income. The school is not an official member of the American ASPNet schools but does work effectively on sustainable development goals school-wide and in a specific class called the STEM Academy.
The school has a School Energy & Recycling Team (SERT) run by students to promote recycling, efficient use of water, and saving energy by turning off lights. The school is a LEEDS Green Roof building with plantings on the school roof. There are gardens in areas for stormwater runoff, a butterfly garden outside, and other outside teaching areas. These school-wide activities meet UNESCO Goal #4 Quality Education.
Every two weeks, the STEM Academy teacher sees all 717 students in the school in class sessions that last about 50 minutes. There are scheduled lesson plans for grade levels that meet five sustainability development goals (Table 2). They are:
• Kindergarten: Earthworms lesson meets SD Goal #15, Life on Land
• 1st Grade: Designing water filters meets Goal #6, Clean Water and Sanitation
• 2nd Grade: Durable packaging lesson meets Goal #12, Responsible Consumption and Production
• 3rd Grade Designing structures meets Goal #9, Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
• 4th Grade: Cleaning oil spills meets Goal #14, Life Below Water
The earthworms project for kindergarteners was developed from a Teaching STEM in the Early Years book (Moomsaw, 2013). The student scientists dig in an outside area and study the earthworms they find using a magnifying glass. Later they will each build a see-through earthworm habitat to study in the classroom. The 4th graders develop a project to clean oil spills. Given red wool, cotton balls, a spoon, and a rubber band, they must work as team to remove vegetable oil from a container with blue water. The order in which they use these items makes a difference in how much oil is removed. For example, the rubber band is used to skim the surface oil off like a boom used in a real-life oil spill. This lesson was developed from the Science Museum of Boston—Engineering is Elementary curriculum.
Grade three is working on structural designs like model bridges and paper chairs. The paper chair activity allowed teams of three students to select ten items from a variety of types of paper. They then design and build a paper chair that can hold “Glen” (a stuffed animal) for 20 seconds without collapsing. The lesson focus is on stability, strength, and durability. The first graders work on a clean water project by constructing a filter system to remove debris from a water container. Students were given coffee filters and cotton balls to work with. This activity was linked to storm water restoration that the school does in real life.
Additionally, the instructor manages the Girls in STEM Club. This after-school club is for fifth-grade girls to prepare them for middle school and does monthly STEM challenges to build the girls’ sense of accomplishment in STEM. Successful women engineers are invited as guest speakers. The club participates in the Hour of Code, a national computer coding event and in the U.S. Science and Engineering Festival. The goal of these efforts meets UNESCO Goal #5 Gender Equality and Goals 2024 to increase the percent of girls selecting careers in STEM (ACT, 2017). Only 22% of college females show an interest in STEM even though they make up more than 50% of the college population in the U.S. This is a problem that the instructor is trying to correct.
Sustainable Development in Japanese Elementary Schools
The UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network has 10,000 schools worldwide in 170 countries. According to aspnet (2018), there are 1,058 Japanese schools in the network, or approximately ten percent of the total schools worldwide. The Japanese National Commission for UNESCO (2014) reported that the Committee of UNESCO Schools for Promotion of ESD were proposing to promote educational activities based on the idea of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and utilize and develop the UNESCO School network.
In a 2015 study by Miyakawa, Isobe, and Masuda, Japanese schools were studied to find out how sustainable development was taught. Eleven kindergarten (61.1%) and 174 elementary schools (47.8%) responded to a survey. Content was taught overwhelmingly during Integrated Study Period and within an environmental theme. The primary reasons why schools linked to the sustainable development were to:
• Enhance school activities (114 responses).
• Sympathize with UNESCO School philosophy (102).
• Strengthen relationship with local community (98).
• Inter-school exchange/association (36).
At the elementary school level, teachers indicated that the following abilities were designed to be developed in students through ESD activities: thinking power, expressiveness, discerning power, multi-aspect thinking, thoughtfulness, cooperativeness, and respect for nature.
Inclusion of sustainable development activities in elementary schools was reported to have benefited the schools by building stronger relationships with the local community, expansion of hands-on activities, improved awareness of teachers, improved quality of education, and improved academic motivation and academic abilities of students. Obstacles to success included gaps in teacher enthusiasm, funding for activities, lack of time, continuity of activities, and concerns about evaluation (Miyakawa, Isobe, and Masuda, 2015). One aspect of the challenge of time was that most materials used for sustainable development activities were developed locally, not received from UNESCO resources.
Multicultural Coexistence Project at Chubu Elementary
Chubu Elementary School in Miyoshi City in Aichi, Japan was founded in 1873 and serves a suburban zone outside of Nagoya, the third largest city in Japan. The school has 545 Japanese students from Grades 1 through 6 with fewer than two percent designated as special needs. One of the sustainable development goals this UNESCO Associated School promotes is multicultural coexistence. According to Miyakawa (2019), “Multicultural coexistence is to accept different cultures between countries and to establish the equal relationship.” This project is designed to help all students learn to communicate effectively with many diverse people including from different cultures and countries. All grade levels are involved (Table 3).
Evaluation of the effectiveness of the project lesson plan is addressed by the teachers answering questions about their students. Were students able to:
• 1st grade: Get used to and enjoy their school life in exchanges with other graders.
• 2nd grade: Make use of what they learn to promote activities through exchanges with workers in school district and children at nursery and kindergarten.
• 3rd grade: Enhance their understanding toward the school district through district exploration and interviews; whether they learn the characteristics of other regions through exchanges with other schools.
• 4th grade: Understand the characteristics of their region and partner schools through exchanges with schools in different environments.
• 5th grade: Tell their own good points and characteristics through exchanges with regions of different climate and natural features.
• 6th grade: Enhance the ability to collect and process information through collecting and analyzing various information from international and welfare points of view.
Joint STEM Elementary Lesson Plan
Educators in the Maryland (U.S.) and Aichi (Japan) schools are working together to create sustainable development lesson plans to be taught in STEM classrooms worldwide. Below is a sample lesson plan, the Special Needs Mobility Challenge. This lesson is linked to standards in ITEEA's Standards for Technological Literacy (2000/2002/2007), Next Generation Science Standards, Common Core, Maryland STEM, and the UNESCO ESD. It will be piloted by the Girls in STEM Club at Glenallan Elementary. If you decide to try this lesson out in your classroom, we would be interested in the results. In fact, plans are underway to research the effectiveness of transnational ESD lesson plans in the coming years.
Schools and teachers across the U.S. are working diligently to teach American students how to be global citizens who protect resources and the environment. School projects are hands-on and engage students at all levels and in multiple content fields in critical thinking and problem solving to make the learning memorable and long lasting. Schools in Japan teach sustainable development through the UNESCO ESD Network and report many benefits to students, teachers, and schools. The safety and continuance of our planet is at risk, and it is the students who will live with what is being done today.
ACT. (2017). STEM education in the U.S.: Where we are and what we can do. Iowa City, IA: Author.
Anderson, A. & Strecker, M. (2012). Sustainable development: A case for education. Environment 54(6), 3-15.
ASPNet.Unesco. (2018). Member List for United States. New York: Associated Schools Project. Retrieved from Network UNESCO website: https://aspnet.unesco.org/en-us/Lists/Schools/country_United%20States%20of%20America.aspx
Hopkins, C. (2013). The past, present and future of ESD in the United States and Canada. Bulletin of the National Institute for Educational Policy, 142, 25- 35.
International Technology Education Association (ITEA/ITEEA). (2000,/2002,/2007). Standards for technological literacy: Content for the study of technology. Reston, VA: Author.
Japanese National Commission for UNESCO. (2014). UNESCO-School and education for sustainable development (ESD). Aichi, Japan: Education for Better Earth.
Miyakawa, H. (personal communication, June 2, 2019). Multicultural coexistence project for ESD. Aichi, Japan: UNESCO School & JICA Training Support Office, Chubu.
Miyakawa, H., Isobe, M., & Masuda, E. (2015). Present conditions and perspective of education for sustainable development in UNESCO schools in Japan. Aichi, Japan: College of
Contemporary Education, Chubu University.
Moomsaw, S. (2013). Teaching STEM in the early years: Activities for integrating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
Museum of Science-Boston. (n.d.) Engineering is Elementary curriculum. Retrieved from www.mos.org/engineering-curriculum
National Council on Science and the Environment. (n.d.). www.ncseglobal.org/work
NGSS Lead States. (2013) Next generation science standards: For states, by states, Volume 1, The standards. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2009). Second collection of good practices, Education for sustainable development. New York: UNESCO Associated
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2016). Schools in action: Global citizens for sustainable development: A guide for students. New York: UNESCO Associated Schools.
University Leaders for a Sustainable Future. (n.d.). www.ulsf.org
Thomas R. Loveland, Ph.D., DTE is a professor and director of the M.Ed. program in Career and Technology Education at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Baltimore. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Hidetoshi Miyakawa, Ph.D., DTE and the ITEEA Academy of Fellows, is a professor at Chubu University, Japan and Chief of UNESCO-Schools Support Office and JICA Training Support Office, Chubu University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zulay Joa, M.S., International Educational Policy (IEP), is a STEM educator and coordinator for Grades K-5 at Glenallan Elementary School in Montgomery County, MD. She can be reached at Zulay_Joa@mcpsmd.org.
This is a refereed article.
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