Waste wise students - Education Matters Magazine
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Waste wise students

Western Australian schools have gone above and beyond in their education for sustainability initiatives and treat sustainability in the curriculum as a critical context for teaching and learning.

“The message that I have taken away from the audit that we did yesterday is profound,” a Year 9 student said upon reflection on his learning after a waste audit. “It was the message of sustainability. I learnt many different things that I did not know such as the facts about landfill and the plastic bags that before I used without thought. It has changed my way of thinking about recycling and waste.”

Western Australian schools continue to go above and beyond in their education for sustainability initiatives. Including sustainability initiatives in the curriculum has sometimes been seen as an ‘add on’ and extra work for a teacher or school to adopt. However with the introduction of the new Australian Curriculum, schools can address the Cross Curriculum Priority of Sustainability and the General Capabilities of Ethical Understandings; Critical and Creative Thinking by incorporating Education for Sustainability.

In WA there is support available for schools to teach and address sustainability concepts and issues from various sources. Increasingly, local governments and regional councils provide opportunities for schools to participate in waste reduction and recycling initiatives such as battery and electronics recycling, and some regional councils also provide community volunteer support through the Earth Carers program.

Earth Carers is a community engagement program run by three regional councils in Perth: Mindarie Regional Council, Western Metropolitan Regional Council and the Eastern Metropolitan Regional Council. By facilitating the development of knowledge and skills in waste management the program helps local people to make a difference by setting up or getting involved in positive sustainability projects in their community.

The Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative WA (AuSSI-WA) is a whole school planning framework for education in sustainability that supports schools to implement curriculum in an innovative, meaningful and empowering way. Sustainability is a critical context for teaching and learning as reflected by its priority status in the Australian Curriculum. Through AuSSI-WA and its Alliance partners, schools are supported to provide action-based experiential learning experiences that not only ‘tick all the boxes’ for curriculum, but also deliver positive social, environmental and economic outcomes for school communities.

In WA, schools are supported by various programs that form part of the AuSSI-WA Alliance. The Alliance is made up of government and non-government education for sustainability providers, and schools are able to access support from programs such as the Waste Authority’s Waste Wise Schools Program, the One World Centre, Water Wise Schools Program, Millennium Kids, Keep Australia Beautiful (KAB) Clean Schools, RRaFT Educators, Scitech and HotRock to name only a few. These programs are able to help schools to develop a ‘sustainability action plan’ that includes mapping their action-based learning project to AuSSI-WA’s ‘Ecological Footprint and Social Handprint’.

Within schools these projects are often spearheaded by a passionate advocate: parent, students, deputies or education assistants.

Like the other programs in WA the Waste Wise Schools program supports these passionate advocates for change in their schools and aims to achieve a whole school sustainable approach with particular focus on waste reduction behaviour. For a school to keep up the enthusiasm, a committee, policy and plan built into the Waste Wise accreditation process helps encourage this. Principal support as well as input and involvement from all parts of the school is essential.

“Our great strength is our integrated approach using a whole-of-school River Ranger Sustainability Plan which incorporates Waste Wise, Waterwise, Energy Smart, Airwatch, Climate Watch, Dolphin Watch etc.,” Deputy Principal of Ardross Primary School, Catherine Bishop, said. “Every class does a share, based on the class teachers’ programs. Waste Wise has not become an ‘add on’ but is an integral part of everyday lessons and activities.”

The Waste Wise Schools Program team has been privileged to support and be inspired by many schools that have achieved wonderful projects and programs. Waste-related projects are often a tangible place for a school to start sustainability education and schools are able to see clear results from their actions.

Schools are able to become involved in many ways, such as recycling competitions through their regional or local councils, community clean-up activities, and by setting up composting, worm farming and paper and plastic recycling in their school grounds. The Waste Wise Schools Program complements these through offering waste education resources, teacher networking opportunities and grants for waste reduction and recycling infrastructure. In addition the Waste Authority provides further recognition for schools’ achievements alongside business, community, government and industry through the Infinity Awards.

Kojonup District High Sschool, highly commended in the 2013 Waste Authority Infinity Awards, is a great example of what regional schools can do and has become a terrific role model for its community, recently featuring in an educational DVD on best practice recycling sponsored by their local recycling depot. This school used its Waste Wise Grant as well as a great deal of innovation to help build a wonderful garden with composting and worm farming that demonstrates the closing of the organic recycling loop.

The school farm will be open with Open Gardens Australia in May, and Horticulturalist Steve Wood will be giving talks on organic gardening. The students’ vegetable gardens will be on display and student produce, such as plants and preserved fruit, will be for sale.

In primary schools the benefits of embedding sustainability initiatives are seen not only in student and staff environmental attitudes and practices but also socially. Students have opportunities to take leadership roles, be involved in collaborative group work and to feel ownership of their school’s projects and take pride in their own achievements. In a recent survey Helen McLernon from Secret Harbour Primary School revealed the highlights of their program.

“Having students take ownership of the recycling that is done here at the school has been a great outcome of the Waste Wise Schools program,” McLernon said. “Some members of the lunch time sustainability group have been involved now for a number of years. For example, one of our Year 7s has been involved since Year 3. We will be sorry to see her leave at the end of the year. She is a wonderful role model to the younger participants and to others in the school. Students are much more aware of things that can be recycled and included in the yellow top bins. A few years ago our yellow top bins were also being used by some students as food bins, but since our visits to the recycling depot as well as work within the school, (much of this by the students themselves, teaching others) this is no longer a problem.”

Trichelle Edwards, from Dardanup Primary School, speaks about the projects students take part in at school and the benefit of networking with teachers at Dunsborough Primary School.

“Students incidentally learn about the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) by doing,” Edwards explains. “We have vege gardens which they all help to plant, we grow seeds and look at seed growth and needs of plants. Our worm farms are cranking and we now have four. We are just working towards getting the main school collecting scraps for worm farms after going to Dunsborough Primary School and seeing their process. Two compost bins are just being started to help top up our vege gardens with goodness. Students from the main school are invited to buddy up with our Pre Primary students to complete shredding, can crushing, making newspaper bricks, weeding etc.”

Another primary school, Coolbinia, the winner of the Infinity Award 2013 for its ‘Ten, 50 and 100 Tonne Challenge’ project, has embedded waste reduction and recycling behaviours with a whole school carbon reduction scheme. The school’s sustainability program, mapped using the AuSSI framework, and partnership with the Maia Maia Foundation helps its students to visualise the reduction of carbon pollution in the atmosphere through individual and joint community efforts in recycling, composting, energy savings and more. The students are able to feel self-efficacy for their everyday actions.

This school has inspired other schools to take up the challenge, Churchlands Primary School, another inspiring Waste Wise school, has since built upon its existing environmental education program and implemented its own unique 20 tonne challenge project.

 Our research showed that achieving a whole school approach in high schools is a challenge, as often teachers plan their programs in subject ‘silos’ and are managing a heavy curriculum load. Some schools choose to embed sustainability into individual subjects, others have taken a cross-curriculum approach, while schools like Emmanuel Catholic College (ECC) and Mindarie Senior College (MSC) use student leadership as a platform for tackling sustainability.

Bridgetown High School, a long standing Waste Wise School, has been encouraging student leadership through incorporating sustainability principles since 2002. The school is in the process of developing a program with Year 8 students that redistributes reusable items within their community. The school is also planning involvement with a PHD student looking at managing fruit fly populations. In science they will test a variety of baiting techniques and in math they will look at developing a survey that collects data about people’s understanding of fruit fly management and then interpret the data. Students are empowered to develop an understanding of systems, critical thinking and reflection skills through their hands on projects.

Capturing the enthusiasm of high school students can be difficult. Two passionate teachers from MSC have been able to inspire students in sustainability issues by creating a specific sustainability mentor stream. Students choose to be involved and have an opportunity to develop meaningful projects that tackle issues such as waste. The student group initiated a co-mingled recycling project and are planning a campaign to ensure low contamination. They have also revived the schools composting and market garden, allowing these hands-on activities to become available to all classes. This approach develops critical thinking, self-efficacy and lifelong learning skills. It brings sustainability and real life issues to the fore – students are learning from real life situations and can see how their actions can impact people and their environment.

Student leaders from John Curtin College of the Arts, Corpus Christi College and others are taking up the challenge to tackle environmental issues at their schools. We view all of these schools mentioned as lighthouse schools able to encourage and support other secondary schools in their journey to incorporate sustainability.

The Waste Wise Schools Program Team, in collaboration with other sustainability educators from the AuSSI Alliance, has been investigating how to better support high schools in achieving a whole school approach to waste education. With the new Australian Curriculum Cross Curriculum Sustainability Priority, we have a great opportunity to support schools to address the sustainability issues around waste. Consultation with principals, deputies, teachers and sustainability educators led to the conclusion that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. We need to provide flexible multi-pronged support options for high schools, including curriculum, to help teachers easily embed sustainability concepts. We can also provide support and networking opportunities for principals and school administrators to see the benefits of incorporating sustainability education and principles into their school culture.

Despite the challenges, there is terrific potential for waste and sustainability education in WA. Schools do a great deal on a shoe-string budget and also through setting up waste education infrastructure with Waste Wise Grants. Recognition and sharing inspiring stories through the AuSSI partnerships and awards such as the Waste Authority Infinity Awards, help to share a school’s stories.

We salute the many schools – too many to list – for initiating and encouraging projects and sustainable practices, along with the enthusiasm and passion of the waste and sustainability educators, which can only bring about positive outcomes in the long run.

The benefits of providing students with outdoor, hands-on activities in their environment are well documented, and the clear evidence is obvious in the many schools in WA that have created wonderful projects. Students are learning by doing and their skill and knowledge is filtering into their school community. Students are given the opportunities to get outside and – through composting, worm farming and growing vegetables – are creating community enterprise. These activities foster social sustainability and resilience through incorporating collaboration, respect for each other and their environment, and importantly the encouragement of students ability to think critically, problem solve, be creative and develop the understanding that they can make a difference in their community.

The article is a team effort written by the Waste Wise team with input from WA schools.

For more information on AuSSI-WA’s ‘Ecological Footprint and Social Handprint’ and to read the case study on Coolbinia Primary School please visit: http://www.det.wa.edu.au/curriculumsupport/sustainableschools/