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Like a New Earth

June 01, 2014

  • News Image
    Professor Smith traveled to Australia and New Zealand in fall 2013 to research sustainability education.
  • News Image
    An arid garden on the grounds of one of the environmentally-focused schools that Smith visited during his sabbatical, collecting lessons about sustainability education to bring back to the U.S.

When professor of education Greg Smith arrived in Cairns, Australia last September, he was reminded of Charles Darwin’s visit to the continent in 1836. Upon seeing how the tropics differed from every ecosystem he had observed, Darwin declared, “there must be two gods.” During a semester-long sabbatical on the Pacific island continent, Smith snorkeled five feet above coral reefs, went spelunking beneath limestone karsts and studied two schools that offer a menagerie of hands-on environmental sustainability projects. He had to agree, “it’s like being on a new Earth.”

First Steps

Smith began at the Cairns Research Institute, a branch of James Cook University that focuses on sustainability and cultural issues across the tropics. He organized a film series and led talks on the link between sustainability and place-based education, the practice of tying learning to local issues and community knowledge. “The focus,” he said, “is on trying to give kids opportunities for inquiry or service-learning based experiences that give them a chance to give back to their community.”

Smith chose to travel to Australia because it is more active than the United States in crafting federal and state policy for sustainability education. During his trip, he drafted a statement about sustainability education in Australia and case studies for two schools that emphasized sustainability and had began to develop ties with their communities. To gather information, he interviewed principals and faculty, and observed classrooms, school assemblies, and after-school activities.  

A New Earth

First, Smith visited a K-7 school in Queensland he described as an “oasis.” Three boys gave him a tour of the campus, which boasts a tropical rainforest, an arid landscape garden and an aquaponics project that pumps water from a fish tank to fertilize the gardens. Students shared the school grounds with straw-necked ibises, wailing bush curlews, and Ulysees butterflies. One boy laughed as he told Smith how the Bioregenerator, a machine that grinds food waste into fertilizer, drenched him in plant goo. The other two described the articles they regularly write for the local paper.

The school teaches social sustainability centered on values of kindness, caring, responsibility and honesty. “There was this real kind of energy and commitment,” Smith said. “They were students who were genuinely interested in school and in learning and really open to adults.”

During his visit, staff invited Smith to potlucks and other gatherings. “There was a real sense of being included,” he said, “of not being an outsider.”

Later, Smith ascended 1,000 feet from the coastal plains of Cairns to the tablelands, lush farmland that “looks like the English countryside surrounded by tropical rainforest.” He arrived at a rural K-12 school that occupies 40 acres on the Barron River next to the Wet Tropics World Heritage Site. Biology students observe the impact of green ants on the productivity of the school orchard and the effects on riparian plants and animals of city pool water tainted with magnesium chloride draining into a creek on school grounds. Students can also take a class in the Djabugay language, make use of a traditional dancing circle or learn the medicinal qualities of bush foods.

In New Zealand, Smith gave a talk to graduate students in a symposium at the University of Canterbury. He discussed the relationship between indigenous and place-based education. While showing Smith around, a colleague explained his efforts to educate the white population about the Treaty of Waitangi, which gave Māori people and Pakeha (Europeans) equal rights. Smith accompanied him on visits to Māori sites on the South Island.

Bringing It Back Home

Smith plans to develop his case studies in two articles, one on leadership and education for sustainability and another on addressing sustainability issues in the face of a reform movement fixated on centralization, standardization and accountability. He wants students to wrestle with community problems like the declining amount of freshwater available to cities, resource exhaustion, and climate change.  

“Students should be able to grapple with issues that exist in their own neighborhoods,” Smith said, “so they begin to see themselves as problem solvers and actors able to make a positive contribution.”  

Learn more about Greg Smith.

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