Initial Publication Date: October 1, 2019

Wrestling with Choices - A Challenge for Schools

Chuck Buxbaum, PhD, Sandia Preparatory School

I recently attended a Design Science Symposium at Rhode Island School of Design that made me consider the traditional departmental divisions in our education system that date back to the Renaissance and the first universities. Will those "disciplinary" boundaries prevent us from fostering in our students the profound social changes necessary to confront the global environmental crisis?

For 22 years, I have been working inside the box as a science teacher and sustainability coordinator of a 6-12 independent school in Albuquerque, In this position, I aim in several directions. The first is to institute physical measures and operational changes to reduce my school's ecological footprints. To this end we have reduced our school-wide carbon footprint by over 30% through installation of 250kW of photovoltaic generation; lighting conversion; a ban of personal refrigerator in classrooms and offices, replacing them with new efficient larger units in most buildings on campus; installing programmable thermostats; and development, first, of a carpooling initiative, and subsequently, purchase of four minibuses to transport many of our students to and from school each day. We've made similar progress in water conservation, wasting less through better irrigation practices and xeriscaping more of our campus, installing bottle fill stations, and collecting rainwater in a couple locations, but more significantly channeling excess run-off to native plant landscapes.

That was the easy part. The second focus of my position is to help foster sustainability curricular changes at our school. I and a colleague developed a school garden program through grants from several foundations; Another grant allowed us to purchase 8 electricity-generating stationary bicycles installed in our student center. In the science department, I encouraged our 9th grade geology teachers to expand their strict geology scope to include oceanography and atmospheric sciences. I created a climate and climate change unit to follow the more standard biome unit in the 7th grade curriculum; and I merged my 12th grade Environmental Science elective with Economics to make a more comprehensive cross-disciplinary course, with a project-based emphasis on solutions. I emphasize the fact that these two disciplines traditionally have had opposing goals: Environmental sustainability vs. Economic growth; and help the students realize that classical "textbook" market economics is not the only valid model and that, in the long run, the goal of economic growth will carry us further down the path to catastrophic disruptions of our planetary ecosystems. Two art teachers have jumped on-board and developed environmentally themed and recycled material art projects in their courses. A 12th grade Global Studies elective in our History department has a strong environmental focus, as well. Finally, I am proud of our Earth Day celebration, which involves a huge schoolwide clothing, DVD, and book swap on our quad, along with sales of solar-baked brownies and organic salads from our garden/greenhouse, an musical performances.

The third direction is to foster (or foment?) social change, a goal that requires forcing our way out of the box of normativity in order to truly face the urgency of the climate emergency. My model is based on the economic concept of incentives and choices. I have not yet determined how to implement this aspect of my position, and I hope that SERC will inspire me. But the fundamental tenet is that we need to honestly scrutinize why we make the choices we make.

Our choices are driven by six questions (in my 12th graders' general order of priority):

1. What do I want?
2. What can I afford?
3. What's convenient?
4. What do other people think I should have?
5. What do I need?
6. What is good for my society/planet?

For most, the first four are the primary drivers of their choices. What must change in order to get the members of our communities to reprioritize such that the last question moves to the top of the list? This is the question I am wrestling with.

Chuck Buxbaum, PhD

Downloadable version of this essay