School Districts Recognizing Benefits of Sustainable Education

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” - Holism explained

Education is surrounded by hot topics and trends such as technology, budgeting and personalized learning. But, there are larger overarching concepts to consider, one of which is expanding the notion of sustainable education. No longer is sustainability tied exclusively to environmental education - it is an all-encompassing subject that is gaining traction inside schools.

Gina LaMotte - a major thought leader in the sustainable education space - recognizes the importance of a holistic approach. The days of discussing environmental sustainability without incorporating economics and social equity are over. The three-tiered framework is broadening the perspective of school leaders looking at the education model. Multi-disciplined and project-based, sustainable education directly correlates to the real-life issues youth are facing.

If the objective is to prepare students with 21st Century skill sets, then tying real world concerns to learning seems both informative and engaging. Students today are faced with a whole different set of environmental, financial and social concerns than their parents. By examining and addressing those concerns, younger people feel a sense of personal responsibility and empowerment that carries over into their educational and career pursuits. Most of all, students begin to recognize that they have something to give and their compassion has a place in the world.


Rod Berger: Gina, it’s nice to spend time with you. I’m curious to learn more about the term “sustainability.” Education is flush with topics and trends right now, issues relative to personalization, technology, and budgeting. But there are bigger focuses - more impactful ones related to sustainable education, and ways in which we think about teaching, learning, curriculum and experiences.

Where do you fit on that spectrum of sustainability and the role it plays in education?

Gina LaMotte: A lot of people will consider sustainability just an environmental issue. There’s an immediate correlation to environmental education. But for us, sustainability is really a triple-bottom-line definition, which means teaching not only environmental sustainability but also teaching economics and equity. How are they financially sustainable? How are they socially sustainable? And how are they environmentally sustainable? That’s a framework that has been growing in traction within the sustainability field.

I think it’s important, particularly when we’re talking to school administrators and teachers, that they understand it’s much more holistic. It draws in so many other components - critical thinking skills, the concept of systems thinking, building leadership and empathy, and how my actions are related to all other things.

Sustainability directly supports a number of existing initiatives such as social-emotional learning, project-based learning and youth leadership - things that make it easy for school administrators to realize that this step is important.

Part of our job is to be able to help people understand what our definition of “sustainability” is, and how it can enhance all the other initiatives that a district has on its plate.

RB: Let’s talk about what it looks like when a district or a school is being mindful, thoughtful and progressive in their approach to sustainability. What would we notice in the way districts communicate to their communities or their staff?

GLM: I think part of it harkens back to the systems thinking approach. When we’re trying to solve a problem, from student discipline issues to parental involvement to budgeting issues, the leadership of the school would solve problems in a coordinated effort that considers all stakeholders.

It’s recognizing the connection between the custodial staff and the facilities, directors and management, and the way the teachers are using the cafeteria and how that can all tie into the science class. Connecting the dots like that, for me, is the baseline attitude that sustainability and a sustainable mindset cultivates.

RB: Gina, if you’re analyzing public education in the US, what tells you that attitudes are shifting about sustainability? Is it no longer something that would merely be nice to have or a nice add-on?

Help me understand where we are right now. How can we make this the norm and not something that is just an add-on? We’ve seen many mistakes through the years in education and technology where we initially thought, “We’ll just plug and play and we’ll reap the benefits.”

And we know that is not a change that is going to be long-lasting.

GLM: My initial response is to say that most environmental education and most sustainability education that I’ve introduced into the classroom over the last 20 years has been incredibly science-focused. It’s been, oftentimes, biology or environmental systems or environmental science-focused.

And so it’s been in this silo, unconnected to everything else that sustainability touches.

What I hope we can grow into is being able to not only support our science teachers and STEM teachers with sustainability concepts in the classroom and environmental literacy, but to ask “How is this introduced when we’re talking about civic engagements? How is this introduced when we study economics and statistics? How is this part of the arts, marketing, and storytelling with not just students, but teachers and adults? Sustainability is a core competency that should be embedded in every field.

And that’s where you see traction right now within districts. In particular, you see the beginnings of coordinated efforts between the academic office and facilities management. So we can say, “While you’re trying to conserve energy on our campuses, lower utility bills, reduce water consumption and increase access to healthy food with healthier cafeteria options - how can we make this a learning experience for our students?” How is this something, for example, that a math teacher can use as a learning opportunity for students to measure utility bills and see trends?

There are so many fun, interesting, and engaging ways to introduce sustainability and to move the needle on a lot of these metrics such as energy conservation. At the end of the day, you have an opportunity for students to learn an incredible amount of useful and relevant skills.

RB: I am very interested in embedding. I think it’s important for community members, outside what they’re doing professionally, to think about sustainability. Municipal leaders should be incorporating it into the work; We should teach sustainable efforts in entrepreneurship because that’s the world in which young people are entering.

We need to get away from an educational model which says, “We’re handing you off to the world without any connection to the realities you will find once you get there. Our students are entering a very entrepreneurial world.

There are some very compelling questions we need to answer. How do we incorporate community and civic leaders? How do we understand the world that students will grow up in? And can we tie in environmental sustainability - all these different pieces you’ve been talking about - with entrepreneurship?” When we were growing up, that wasn’t exactly a part of the everyday conversation in education, nor was it a part of the curriculum.

GLM: Do I see that there’s a growing interest and understanding of this connection between the school and the surroundings?

RB: Yes, the value proposition that you see. A lot of people might say “Look, Gina, my problem is I deal with K-12. You’re higher ed,” as an example. “What we do is what we do. We don’t really worry when we hand them off to you.”

What I think is compelling about the sustainability models is the way in which you’re talking is, now, we’re really looking at “How do we incorporate the community and civic leaders? How do we understand the world that students are growing up in? And can we tie in environmental sustainability - all these different pieces you’ve been talking about - with entrepreneurship?” When we were growing up, that wasn’t exactly a part of the everyday conversation in education nor was it a part of the curriculum.

GLM: No, it was not. We’re gaining a lot of traction, and receiving a lot of positive feedback from schools and the community at large, by helping to build a bridge between the school district, local companies, and municipalities.

You see teachers and administrators completely burdened by so many issues. It’s not an easy profession to go into. When folks like us come to the table and we say, “We know you want to be the best teacher you can be. We know you want to create transformative opportunities for your students. We know part of that is bringing the students’ experience beyond the classroom and connecting them to local leaders and workforce development opportunities.” To them, it’s a gift; it’s a relief.

They don’t have the time to build those relationships nor is it necessarily their job to do so.

I think we’ve seen a lot of our success because we bring resources to the table beyond the curriculum, teacher training and our core program.

RB: Building that sustainable intelligence, correct?

GLM: Yes, absolutely! I think the students themselves understand that you don’t put on one hat when you’re at home, put on a different hat when you walk into the classroom, and then another as soon as you get into your after-school program.

All these things, again, are connected.

It’s having the students recognize that there’s a community around them that is rich with opportunities. People want to support, help and introduce them to new fields of study or issue areas. Frankly, people respect them and want to hear their voices. For the student, it’s incredibly empowering to have the opportunity to solve problems just like any adult in his or her community.

That’s really at the heart of what we’re doing. It’s honoring the voice of the student and saying, “We recognize that inside your heart and your mind, you have something to give. And it’s not just when you graduate from high school or when you graduate from college. It’s today! Let’s see what’s in there.”

RB: I love that. It speaks to the voice of the student and the world they are in.

Continued success! We look forward to seeing sustainability become an increasing part of the national conversation on a regular basis.

Thanks so much, Gina.

GLM: Thank you.

About Gina LaMotte

Founder & Executive Director of EcoRise

Gina LaMotte is a social entrepreneur who is most passionate about unlocking the power and potential of youth as leaders, innovators and visionaries. She is a creative-thinker, a community connector and a tenacious dreamer who thrives when left with a design challenge, a pile of colorful markers and a blank white board.

Gina founded EcoRise Youth Innovations in 2008, with the intent of providing a transformative educational program integrating sustainability, leadership and innovation into the traditional K-12 classroom. Fueled by stubborn idealism, Gina bootstrapped the organization, winning many public awards, attracting hundreds of community partners, and securing millions of earned income and charitable contributions. Within seven years, EcoRise has grown to deliver world-class curricula, training and support to over 700 schools and 1,000 teachers in 26 countries.

Leading up to EcoRise, Gina spent ten years working with innovative educational programs serving youth in Brazil, India, Nepal and Guatemala, as well as Harlem, New York, and Taos, New Mexico. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Education from Global College with an emphasis on experiential education and identity politics.

In 2004, Gina moved to Austin, Texas and pioneered a robust summer and after-school program at a Title One middle school. She also built and led a youth cultural exchange program to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and served as a facilitator and counselor at the Global Youth Peace Summit.

While in graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, Gina studied sustainable development and social entrepreneurship and earned a certificate in Non-Profit Studies at the LBJ School for Public Affairs. Gina is a former co-chair of Austin ISD's Environmental Stewardship Advisory Committee and has presented extensively at local, regional and national conferences around the topics of green schools, design thinking and sustainability education.

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Further Reading:

About Rod Berger, PsyD.

Dr. Rod Berger is President and CEO of MindRocket Media Group. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

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