From meeting environmental activist Dame Jane Goodall to discussing marine protection in the Marlborough Sounds with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, teenagers here in Aotearoa are championing the environment with the support of some outstanding teachers.
Jim Critchley teaches Earth and space science to Year 12 and 13 students at Mount Maunganui College. He has run an environmental group at the college for the past four years. He says the students, who also helped organise Tauranga’s recent Strike 4Climate, inspire him daily.
“They’re a group of passionate and driven individuals. They’re keen to get other students informed and involved. They’ve worked on numerous projects from applying for funding and materials to build a sustainable meeting hub on school grounds to plans to work with the local marina on installing a sea bin to catch plastics at the marina. They’ve been tree planting – they get involved in anything – they’re awesome.”
The group met Dr Jane Goodall at a climate change conference earlier this year.
A group of Auckland University students, none of them over the age of 21, organised the Climate Challenge Conference for high school students from around the country to meet and listen to speakers. Our group went and Jane Goodall came and spoke to them. We agreed with her when she said, ‘It is all very well to have a movement, but what are you doing personally to stop consuming?’”
The students are “without a doubt” inspired by Greta Thunberg, says Critchley.
“When they’re looking at a 16-year-old speaking at the UN, that sparks all kinds of conversations. Some of those at home are not always on board with the Climate Change Movement – when Greta is on the news families can talk about it.”
Marine Team impresses PM
Further south, a group of now former Marlborough Girls’ College students known as the ‘Marine Team’ made a big impression on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern when they met with her this June. They were there to advocate for getting special legislation through Parliament to ensure marine protection in the Marlborough Sounds.
The girls’ work grew out of an incredible programme run by Marlborough Girls’ College’s Melynda Bentley. She is the environmental sustainability teacher and has responsibility for the school’s environmental team.
“The 2018 Marine Team produced work to inform the Prime Minister about the species and issues in the sounds with support from their mentors who ranged from top professors in their fields through to local people. The 2018 Marine Team’s work is going to be used to help the local council with their management of Marlborough Sounds. Their hard graft and persistence have created more awareness and real change.”
She explains that the school’s programme is both place-based and student-led learning.
“We begin by listening to local experts working in viticulture, marine, farming, conservation and in the school. And we go on field trips to get an understanding of what sustainability is or isn’t.
“I like to get them out there to see, feel and hear what is happening – so they are totally immersed. YouTube and the internet have their place but nothing beats being out in our environment.”
The students then choose an aspect of sustainability they are interested in, talk further to the experts then develop their ideas of what they want to do for their action project.
“This year, for example, our Year 13s have worked with Pernod-Ricard and community mentors. They used the Naturalist programme to identify what species are in the Kaituna wetlands that they are restoring, so as to inform next steps.”
Other students worked on an area in Yealands Winery called Butterfly Gully. Using soil testing and planting, and working alongside Jacqui Knight and Joan Fairhill of the Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust, the group’s work has further increased the gully’s butterfly population.
Local mentors a key ingredient
Bentley says a key ingredient in the success of the programme is the passion and knowledge of the local experts who are keen to support the students through mentoring.
“It’s important that our students have mentors who are keen to work with younger people.”
Like those at Mount Maunganui College, Bentley says Greta Thunberg has been a huge inspiration for her students.
“We teach in our course that it is all very well going and protesting but you have to be informed and able to articulate your ideas to be credible. For their research projects we’ve taught them how to research information so they know what is credible and what isn’t – there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and we want them to be able to make an informed decision about their action to create a sustainable future.”
Both Critchley and Bentley agree that having their principal’s support has been essential to the success of their respective environmental groups. And Marlborough Girls’ College principal Mary-Jeanne Lynch says she couldn’t be prouder of Bentley’s work.
“We agree on the importance of the youth voice in environmental issues and the place that schools and education have in promoting a change in culture.
“Melynda has been leading extraordinary work with our students. I’m extremely proud of her work, her leadership and the progress our students have made in raising awareness and taking action around a number of environmental issues, including the Marine Team.”