Sustainable Design in Schools


When I first started working as a Design teacher, I was so excited by all the projects and opportunities I was going to have making with my students. I started to thinking about SUSTAINABILITY without even really thinking about the term in two ways:

  1. How will we manage materials and waste responsibly?
  2. How can I give students’ opportunities for open-ended client based projects when I only saw them for a year or a semester, but manage the sustainability of good projects?

 
And even after ten years, still don’t have answers, but it still something I continue to think about and work on as an educator and facilitator. No matter what school you are at, this is usually an issue, but it’s not something that is frequently discussed or solved easily.

First, let’s think about the question with the clearest answer:
How can we manage materials and waste responsibly?
Originally, I thought maybe I could use primarily recycled or upcycled materials.  I think this can be done with balance.  It is hard to create high quality products with old cardboard boxes and old food containers. School communities are great at collecting materials, but then Design/Maker labs quickly turned into a trash heap on one side. We also created more trash with the trash in some instances.  Some of the products would definitely not be used.
As international teachers, we move around frequently, and often do not have the language acquisition for procuring materials.  Or the budgets nor time to be really picky.  I would love to know the source of all my materials and be able to use high quality, sustainable, ethically and realistic for my budget.
As many of us have realized… there is no answer.  It is a balance of upcycling/recycling, and ordering ethical and sustainable materials.  We have started recycling our own plastics at ISB, using the Precious Plastic model, which has been a great asset to our design program. I do wonder how I can find out more about the origins of my products and educate our community more on local sustainable products.
Now, on to the second part of sustainability in school projects:
How can we give students’ opportunities for open-ended, authentic, client based projects and manage the sustainability of those projects and products?
This is more difficult to answer.  I am constantly trying to figure out this one.  Frequently, students come up with great ideas for projects that could truly solve an authentic problem in our community, but once that student leaves the class or the school, that project is often dropped.  Sometimes I’ll try to suggest to the student that he/she should create a “sustainability plan” for example: create a club to continue the work that’s needed…
Sometimes a younger student will pick up the project…
And sometimes, I’ve just got to let it go, no matter how great it is.
In Design, a high quality product is desirable and we want kids to achieve that, but the reality is the process and the learning that goes into design thinking is most important.  Maybe those students continue the work at a new school, new community, or even at university.  I will never know, but there’s hope.  If nothing else, I hope that our students continue to use design thinking to address issues, identify problems and seek opportunities in all areas of their lives.
In many design thinking frameworks and processes, there is a part of the reflection piece where students need to consider the impact of the project/product on themselves, others, the environment and be reflective on their social, emotional and economic impact of their project, especially for them to imagine their product going to mass market.  This is essential in our teaching and our Design classrooms, no matter the project.
As international teachers, our students are the future leaders, businessmen/businesswomen, and parents of the next generation.  I hope they always consider their impact as they design and create new businesses, products and solutions to problems that may not even exist yet.
So is this something we need to put more at the forefront of our teaching as Design Teachers?  If we are not teaching it, who is, especially in such a hands-on way?
Should we always be looking at the sustainability and impact of the project, even as young as elementary school?
I think, yes.
 

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