By Kutasha B. Silva
As a Latina girl raised in Puerto Rico, my favorite way to play was sliding down massive sand dunes. I also found delight in harvesting crops from my family’s small farm and cooking alongside my abuelo, my grandpa. Depending on what was in season, I brought home plantains, breadfruit, avocado, or pigeon peas; with them, we would cook delicious family dinners that felt more like feasts.
From the science classroom, I could see the stately dunes, standing silently as the Atlantic Ocean’s gentle guardians. The shades of sea-blue would shift from month to month; sometimes my classmates and I could spot a migrating humpback whale in the distance.
I’d often find myself wishing that my science lessons taught me how the Taino people, the Indigenous people of Puerto Rico, had lived with the ocean and the land and made efficient use of the Caribbean’s powerful sun and winds. But unfortunately, this “traditional ecological knowledge” (TEK) was not taught in school. Decades later, my curiosity about the potential of sustainable curricula would grow powerful enough to carry me across the Atlantic Ocean to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in pursuit of a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, my youthful experience of playing in nature shifted drastically by the time of my quinceañera, my 15th birthday. The high demand for sand, a prime construction material, resulted in the removal of the dunes. At that same time, economic hardship forced my family to sell our land. The new buyers came in with diggers to rip out the papaya, breadfruit, soursop, and mango trees, which were replaced by an apartment complex and a car garage to match. Today, it’s much more common to see hotels and cargo ships in the distance instead of humpback whales; harvesting breadfruit and avocados is also a faraway memory.
Shortly after I had moved away from my home island to begin my Ph.D. program, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico detrimentally. The angry tides and winds killed more than 3,000 people, leaving millions hungry and in the dark due to a fragile and antiquated electrical grid.
Three years after the hurricane, on a walk along my childhood beach, I could still see bulldozers digging hungrily for sand below sea level. Even more recently, ABC news reported that COVID-19 had exacerbated massive food insecurities on the island.
These cascading ecological, economic, and societal disasters prompted me to consider the common thread running between each and every one: the urgency for sustainable natural resource management, renewable energies, and agricultural stewardship. Equitable access to food, clean energy, and natural play spaces can come to fruition through emphasizing sustainability in education policy and curricula implementation. And what better group to begin cultivating this awareness than its youngest members, who have at once the most to gain and the most to lose?
I ask myself: What would it look like if young children everywhere, from the mainland United States to territories like Puerto Rico, were taught to have the knowledge, hope, and vision to develop a collective sustainable future that values both humanity and the environment? Today, this very question has become the center of my doctoral dissertation on environmental education for young children.
The Origins of Environmental Education
Environmental Education (EE) in the United States formally began with the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Into the 1980s, it was assumed that energy and environmental problems could be adequately addressed through individual human behavior change as opposed to systemic changes within broader corporate and governmental systems. A review and analysis of research published in The Journal of Environmental Education states that the initial goal of EE in the United States was to expose children to individual behavior change practices that would enhance conservation efforts and cultivate a scientifically literate society.
This approach was not enough; the United Nations implemented Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) as a global call to action. The goal was to reach beyond individual behavior change and strive for a collective change focused on equity, quality of life, democracy, and economic advancement while keeping the environment and humanity at the center of it all.
Children as Change Agents
Over the past two decades, ESD has become a major tool to affirm children’s agency in environmental, social, and economic advancement. After all, children make up 25% of the world’s population. The internationally acclaimed Australian Journal of Environmental Education published a study revealing that the socialization of sustainability and understanding of renewable energy happens in children between the ages of three and 10 years old. This highlights the importance of reorienting primary school curriculums toward ESD. Heightening the practice and understanding of renewable energies, conservation, and sustainable land and water stewardship in primary school curriculums is the most effective step toward shaping a 21st century economy and society that is clean, green, safe, and just. ESD was implemented by the United Nations as a way to address the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, also known as SDGs. The SDGs have become a “North Star” to improve education, address climate change, and secure a global future for children.
As a doctoral student in Curriculum & Instruction, my research centers on two specific SDGs and the importance of emphasizing them in public elementary school curriculums: Zero Hunger (Goal 2) and Affordable and Clean Energy (Goal 7). I am particularly interested in understanding how Traditional Ecological Knowledges (TEK) and Sustainable Technologies can be integral pedagogical tools that support young children and their educators to create and build upon sustainable knowledges that are valuable to their school’s diverse communities.
Traditional Ecological Knowledges
As a Puerto Rican, I am partly Indigenous through my Taino ancestry. However, the education offered to me as a child did not include anything regarding Taino Traditional Ecological Knowledges (TEK), and how the Taino people maximized their relationship with the natural environment. More specifically: What were their agricultural practices? How did they maximize natural resources like solar energy? Unfortunately, the only thing I was taught in school concerning the Taino peoples was that they were friendly to Christopher Columbus upon his arrival in Puerto Rico.
Indigenous communities have robust knowledge of the environment, and EE should be considered the educational legacy of the Indigenous people. These bodies of knowledge have been learned and transferred through generations of people. They are a timeless foundational system for sustaining people, community, culture, and place. There is much to learn from them.
Unfortunately, it has taken decades for many sustainability scholars to consider the educational legacy that sustained and continues to sustain many tribal nations. Including TEK within EE can help us all move more closely to collective sustainable development while deepening our relationship with nature. Learning to participate directly with nature and understand how to relate to renewable resources is essential to the development of the mind, body, and spirit of children. This relationship is the ultimate source of continuity for any culture.
Sustainable Technology and Environmental Education
By merging sustainable technology and TEK, educators can encourage students to question assumptions and consider alternatives to current unsustainable systems and practices. Children learn by doing; therefore, integrated sustainable technologies (e.g., renewable energy) can engage children more deeply with nature. What is visible to children shapes what we believe to be possible in life. Because young children learn best by “doing,” a school’s physical environment is an additional teacher and can be a powerful form of pedagogy. A recent study published in Energy Research & Social Science states if technologies such as windmills, solar panels, and geothermal wells are part of local school architecture, this can subtly teach about renewable energy and its potential. As a result, the recognition and use of it can become a normal part of our life and collective society.
Pairing visual cues and action-oriented activities on energy with TEK can fuel children’s imagination to come up with environmental solutions that we as a society have not yet considered. Action-oriented activities relating to energy are rare in EE curriculums for young children, despite childhood being the prime time to develop clean energy habits.
Clean, Green, Safe, and Just: Immersion into a Culture of Sustainability
As a 2021 Fulbright Scholar and doctoral student in Curriculum & Instruction, I aim to look through the international lens of Uruguay, South America to investigate an EE model that normalizes clean energy and food security. Uruguay and its population of 3.3 million inhabitants are at the forefront of sustainability, drawing 95% of electricity from renewable resources. In 2008, Uruguay declared EE as law with the goal of developing sustainability skills early in children’s lives so they carry these habits into adulthood.
Data collection for my doctoral dissertation will be centered on the environmental retreat center, Centro Ecológico Integrado al Medio Rural (Ecological Center Integrated to the Rural Environment), commonly referred to in Uruguay as C.E.I.M.E.R. Children from all across the country travel to the retreat center with their classmates and teachers to participate in four-day environmental education retreats. The public retreat center is considered a model for EE, and the curriculum encourages children to think as global citizens and develop the skills needed for a collective sustainable society. With the aim of having the physical environment function as a teacher, the retreat school runs on renewable energy, thus demonstrating to children what is possible through its use, early on. In addition to this physical exposure to renewable energies, children are taught foundational skills to use and create solar and wind energy through workshops that integrate recycled materials, computational programming, and robotics. The public retreat school also promotes a variety of agricultural activities that draw from TEK to further children’s knowledges on farming native crops and tending to livestock to ensure food security for all within Uruguay.
C.E.I.M.E.R is a particularly important site to research as it incorporates environmental education, technology, and Traditional Ecological Knowledges. The school has offered retreats to children from across Uruguay for over 26 years and intentionally builds upon the children’s local knowledges to further develop the possibilities of collective sustainable development. According to individuals that I have spoken with in the host country, the educational model is considered a success in Uruguay. Through deep immersion in the culture of sustainability of Uruguay, I aim to understand how C.E.I.M.E.R builds upon the children’s sustainable traditional knowledges to therefore shape a twenty first century community that is clean, green, safe, and just for the people and the environment.
Bringing it Stateside: Education for Sustainable Development in the U.S.
As a country, the United States continues to be challenged with never-before-seen environmental degradation and social upheaval. Continuing to exclusively focus on individual behavior change is not enough. Quality public education offered to young children must prioritize awareness and skill development in clean energy and sustainable agriculture. Furthermore, a significant inclusion of Traditional Ecological Knowledges within EE curriculums can inspire young children and educators to build upon timeless knowledges of sustainable practices that can be of strong value to the well-being of any school’s diverse communities.
Two schools within the United States that actively model sustainable practices for children are Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia and Bosque Escuela Olimpia in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. Both schools focus on renewable energy with the goal of developing awareness and skill in young children so that they may eventually propose new sustainable solutions that we have yet to consider.
The Discovery Elementary School‘s vision is to encourage children to become skilled citizens that can address climate change and create the needed solutions for a sustainable future. The school is entirely built around the concept of renewable energies; each calendar year, the school produces at least as much energy as it consumes. Heating for the building is fully provided using geothermal wells under the outside field, and solar heaters generate hot water for the cafeteria. In addition to the building’s physical structure, the curriculum is designed to promote a sustainable future. Children learn the foundational skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic while furthering knowledge on what is possible with sustainable practices such as renewable energies.
Bosque Escuela Olimpia encompasses 150 acres of land at the base of the Rio Grande. The school’s mission is to protect natural resources through renewable energy practices. Hydropower is used as a sustainable technology to deepen students’ inquiry in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and art. Similar to the Discovery Elementary School, Bosque Escuela Olimpia is designed with the purpose of leading the way to a collective sustainable future.
Through their curriculum and physical environment, the two schools in the United States and retreat center in Uruguay introduce children to foundational sustainable knowledges that are aimed to encourage children to propose new ideas for addressing climate change. My goal is that data collection in Uruguay will provide a clear picture of what can be possible in the United States, if greater emphasis on sustainable development was placed within educational policy and national curricula.
For children like I once was, massive sand dunes are no longer available as a setting for play, but public elementary schools full of sustainable gardens, solar energy toys and colorful windmills do present delightful possibilities.
Kutasha B. Silva grew up surrounded by the mountains and ocean of rural Puerto Rico. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Curriculum & Instruction and a Research Assistant in the College of Education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Outside of work and study, Kutasha enjoys gardening, playing music, and sharing quality time with her partner and family.
This article was the prize winner in the Graduate Student category of the 2020 Janelle Joseph Environmental Writing Contest, sponsored by iSEE supporter Janelle Joseph and judged by the Q Magazine Editorial Board.