A sustainable approach to teaching

John Walmsley says UWC Atlantic College's sustainability activities are a big part of school life

As teachers, it is our role to prepare young people for the world ahead of them. Today, opening students’ eyes to vital environmental issues in their locality and the world at large is especially crucial. 

As the founding school of the UWC International movement, UWC Atlantic College is guided by its mission statement to ‘make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future’. Students follow a broad and balanced curriculum that is academically rigorous and embodies the school’s mission, preparing them for a life of service and leadership. A core component of the UWC ethos is a commitment to community service; its service programme involves students engaged in a service or activity that supports other members of the college or local community.

How students get involved

Sustainability underpins our whole curriculum and is a fundamental aspect of the day-to-day lives of the students and teachers who call our campus home. Each term, the college hosts conferences and workshops on aspects of our mission, some two or three days long, and sustainability is a key diploma period for us where students focus on the environmental challenges our world faces. We want to ensure our college community is united and committed to our sustainable goals.  

An early step was to create a student-led Sustainability Council, who created (and continually develop) our Sustainability Charter, which is fully acknowledged by the college’s management team. The council’s remit ranges from elements of day-to-day life on campus to the design of new buildings and assessing the green credentials of school suppliers.

However, engaging students to embrace an environmental mind-set that stays with them for a lifetime isn’t going to happen through policy alone. We needed to get students fired up about these issues and a more experiential approach to teaching does that. This is why some of our students spend as much time working on marine conservation as they do on traditional academic subjects.    

It’s simple enough to incorporate environmental aspects into certain subjects, such as geography, biology or physics, but as environment continues to drives political and media agendas, we find that sustainable issues often spark a student’s interest in global politics, culture and religion.

The dual nature of our Atlantic Diploma curriculum lets students divide their time between their academic International Baccalaureate studies and a series of co-curricular activities linked to sustainable elements of the UWC mission. The college’s academic programme is based on the International Baccalaureate Diploma, which the college helped to develop.

Students joining our Environmental Faculty get to work on a range of projects designed to equip them with experience and tools to move towards a more sustainable future. This includes helping to cultivate our large on-campus kitchen garden, running the college’s farm and conserving the heritage coastline that UWC Atlantic College calls home. Students have the option to specialise in either land or sea-based activities including alternative technology projects, recycling schemes, species monitoring, marine diving, monitoring aquatic biodiversity and engaging in marine environmental-awareness campaigns. The faculty is the intellectual hub of sustainability on campus, not only engaged in the experience of practical projects but also responsible for ensuring that environmentalism is a driving force throughout the college.

Students help look after the gardens

Each year we dedicate a week to student projects, many of which have sustainability at the heart, including measurement of carbon footprint. The Environmental Faculty projects are developed by staff and students working together, with students becoming ‘sustainability champions’ to inspire others in their work.

For the Sustainability Conference, all regular classes are suspended entirely for three days to provide all students with the opportunity to learn from their peers and external sustainability experts. In just a few years, our conference has grown from a handful of speakers and workshops, to a major event in our co-curricular calendar. Its purpose is to afford students the time and resources to consider the relationships between politics, economics, ecology and culture.

The global community

Ultimately, our goal is to encourage students to think globally and act locally. Inviting sustainability, environmental and conservation experts to join our conferences allows students to develop an understanding of how their college-based efforts are being put to use across the globe.

In addition to providing lectures and interactive workshops, guest speakers are invited to join students in topical debates. These debates are joined by guest panellists from the business world and the local community. For example, one year students chose the debate topic ‘What will the energy of tomorrow look like?’ which was put to a panel made up of senior representatives from local oil and gas exploration companies, a director of a national sustainable transport charity and local activists.     

While this approach may seem more appropriate for university-level students, the often controversial issues surrounding sustainability can often prove an attractive and effective introduction to higher education level study. More importantly, a dedicated focus on vital global environmental issues allows each and every UWC student the chance to gain the knowledge, skills and determination they need to make a real difference to the specific sustainability issues face in their home countries.  

John Walmsley is principal of UWC Atlantic College in South Wales.


How does your school get students involved with green activities? Send your stories to the editor: Stephanie.broad@wildfirecomms.co.uk