Each year Inside Education hosts its flagship environmental education event at the lodge in beautiful Kananaskis Country for one good reason – to “inspire students.”
“At the Gener8 Youth Energy and Climate Summit, we have students from all over Alberta learning with and from experts on energy and climate change. At the end they will go back to their schools and communities and affect change,” says Steve McIsaac, executive director of Inside Education.
Inside Education’s motto is to “support teachers and inspire students” and it turns out they take the inspired part pretty seriously: “It’s the most important thing that we try to do. Whether it’s being inspired by a place like Kananaskis or bringing in incredible experts and speakers like Sean Aiken or Olympic athletes. We’ve had political leaders come. We want young people to be amazed by the place, amazed by the information and to know that what they’re doing and learning is important and that they can make a difference,” says McIsaac.
Speakers at Gener8 are called idea generators. It’s an intense and engaging event for the students. About 60 schools apply to be part of Gener8 each year but there is only room for 20.
“That’s the hardest part of our job. For programs like these we deliberately keep the numbers small – 20 high schools equating to 80 students and 40 teachers. We like that size because of the vibe that it creates in the room,” says McIsaac.
In one session called “Energy Dialogues,” Energy and Climate Change Inside Education brought together 16 experts in solar, wind, oil and gas, parks, air quality and climate change. Students got to pick seven tables they would visit to learn from and pick the brains of the experts in short, intense 10-minute sessions.
It’s high energy and very intense for both presenters and students. And I would know. I was one of the presenters being peppered with questions from students and teachers.
Part of the take-away is for students to undertake an action when they go home.
“While we do provide some parameters, it’s student-directed and student-driven. Afterwards, students have done everything from upgrading toilets in their school’s staff room to stream bank rehabilitation after the 2013 floods to installing solar on their school’s rooftop. We had one high school that wrote a children’s book related to energy efficiency that they took to the elementary school across the field and read to the kids,” says McIsaac.
Two teachers I met at Gener8 were Rhona Hunter and Nadine Spencer from Medicine Hat High School.
The two found a shared interest in the environment when they concurrently registered for their first Gener8 summit several years ago.
“It’s because of Inside Education that we started the club. It was our students that were so inspired when they came here that they wanted to start the club. And we’ve been going every since,” says Hunter. Their school’s club is called Youth for Environmental Sustainability (YES).
One of the first four students they invited years ago was Jasveen Brar. “She went on to Dalhousie University, actually changed her minor into sustainability, and has just become fired up with the environment and the possibilities of what she can do,” says Spencer.
Brar went on to get involved with Students on Ice studying climate change in the Arctic and Antarctic and a few months ago took a group of students to the United Nations in a follow-up project. “It wasn’t until I visited Antarctica that I realized I knew so little about how the world works, and the real impact that we, humans are having on the planet,” Brar said of her experience.
Other students from Medicine Hat went home and created a puppet show about the environment, which touched on bullying and the problems of plastics in the ocean. They took their puppet show to 14 schools in Medicine Hat to share their learning.
Yet another group of students created a board game on protecting watersheds.
“In 2016 we directly connected, in classrooms and field trips, with 23,000 young people, ranging from Grade 4 to Grade 12. Two hundred teachers participated in our teacher professional development programs and 500 students participated in our youth summits,” says McIsaac, a teacher himself who started working for Inside Education 25 years ago, right out of university.
Inside Education was founded by McIsaac’s mentor Jim Martin in 1985 as “a side of his desk project.” Martin was a teacher and principal in Indigenous communities. “He believed in taking the students outside,” says McIsaac. “He wanted to provide them with learning experiences … that will be life-changing. He passed away last year. It’s been our goal to pick up the mantle he left for us.”
In professional development programs Inside Education takes teachers to wind farms, the oilsands and elsewhere to provide hands-on experience. Other Inside Education student alumni got involved with the Centre for Global Education. That’s the same program where students wrote a white paper that was delivered at the Paris Climate Change Summit by none other than Premier Rachael Notley. More recently students prepared a white paper on climate change education and the programs schools can undertake to take action on climate change.
McIsaac says one of the differences in students these days is they don’t want to wait until they graduate to make a difference – they are taking action now.