NAAEE Conference
Eleva Potter, Dir. Conservation Programming

On October 16-19, I was honored to give a talk at the North American Association of Environmental Educators Annual Conference (NAAEE)  conference in Lexington, KY.  My presentation was titled, "Using Systems Thinking to Educate About Sustainability and Environmental Justice." It highlighted lessons, activities, and resources used in the "Stewardship in Action" class at Conserve School. 

I began the presentation with an explanation of the class, and it’s three themes of person, place, and purpose. Students explore “person” by reflecting on their own beliefs and values and how these relate to nature. Students then explore the Land Ethic Reader, a collection of land ethics from different cultures and countries. They then write their own "land ethic." Students connect person and place by getting to know their more-than-human neighbors at Conserve School, by learning about wild edibles, garden tea, making homemade salsa, beekeeping, invasive species removal, and going on reflective hikes. These activities help students understand ecological systems on campus. 

Next, students use "systems thinking" to map resource use in the Lowenstine Academic Building (LAB) by focusing on how energy, food, water, and waste are used on an everyday basis. Students talk to knowledgeable staff members to better understand these systems and map them on a blueprint of the building. Students also discuss if these systems are sustainable and how they can be improved.

From this understanding of "systems thinking" and sustainability, students then further explore the concept of environmental justice. They do this by examining the local issue of Enbridge "Pipeline Three" that crosses northern Minnesota. Additionally, they study the national issue of siting landfills and trash incinerators in low-income, often minority, communities. Students map these issues using techniques from the Youth Activist ToolKit called the Problem Tree and the Power Map to understand better the root causes of these issues and how they can create alliances and coalitions to create positive change.

Lastly, students use the Social Change Wheel to reflect on how they would like to be an environmental steward at Conserve School and in their sending community. They also incorporate what they’ve learned into a sustainability project at Conserve School. Projects in the past have included things like creating a new compost system out of recycling pallets, updating campus maps, leading exploration hikes, and cleaning the GroTowers in the dining room as well as creating an informative video on how to use them.

I was excited that my presentation proposal was accepted for NAAEE this fall.  As an educator, it was fantastic to have this opportunity to share my work at Conserve School with an extraordinary community of about 75 environmental educators. They had many questions and were excited about the resources I provided. Furthermore, it was rewarding to witness a genuine interest among the participants in exploring the issues of sustainability and environmental justice through "systems thinking."