FES students teach high schoolers to change the world

Close to 300 high school students from Toronto, Mississauga and York Region came together on Oct. 14 to participate in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) Change Your World conference, an environmental and social justice conference for high school students and teachers.

The free conference gave local high school students the chance to engage in environmentally focused, participatory activities on York’s Keele campus.

Right: Professor Anders Sandberg delivers the introductory talk to a class of high school students for the Change Your World conference

York Professor Anders Sandberg, a finalist in TVOntario’s 2008 Big Ideas Best Lecturer Competition, opened the conference by explaining how York can be used to illustrate some of the common environmental issues we deal with every day. In his talk, “Digging Where You Stand: Exploring Environmental Issues on the York University Campus”, he gave details of flooding storm water and the drinking water supply, bringing some of the world’s issues to the front steps of students who may never have considered them.

Next came the workshops – and the conference’s key twist. Though the workshop content was developed by environmental studies professors, they trained FES undergraduate and graduate students on how to present and facilitate the workshops, which included:

  • “Zine Your Scene: What Does the Environment Mean to You?”, coordinated by Professor Leesa Fawcett.
  • “Growing Art: Rooted in Communities” and “Telling Food and Eating Stories: Digital Storytelling Around Food Issues”, both coordinated by Professor Deborah Barndt.
  • “Landscape: Stand in the Place Where You Live”, coordinated by Professor Laura Taylor.
  • “The Politics of Climate Change”, coordinated by Professor Anders Sandberg.
  • “EmPOWERing Ontario – How Renewable Energy Programs Help Promote Change and Create Prosperity”, coordinated by Professor José Etcheverry.

These participatory sessions invited high school students to create art, tell stories and ask questions about how their lives intersect with the environments that surround them. At the same time, they highlighted the FES focus on experiential education, giving the York student presenters a venue in which to exercise newly developed skills that will serve them in their degrees and in their careers.

Left: A zine tree collage created by high school students in one of the workshops

As the workshops progressed, collages reflecting the high school students’ views on the environment could be seen hanging in classrooms, while chalkboard notes left evidence of the material covered and the preoccupations of people only beginning to find their places in the world. Some workshops went so far as to walk students through parts of the York campus where they could see firsthand how projects like the garden located in front of the Health, Nursing & Environmental Studies Building could affect people’s perception of built landscapes.

Afeefa Karim, a third year bachelor of environmental studies student and facilitator of “The Politics of Climate Change” workshop, was surprised by how much her workshop participants knew. “These students definitely know more about the environment and its issues than I did when I started the Environmental Studies Program.”

Right: These Change Your World water bottles were distributed to the participating high school students

Every hour or so, as the day progressed, Vari Hall would fill with the voices of 300 high school students as they talked, laughed and moved to their next set of workshops and events – learning not only about the environmental studies perspective on changing the world, but about everything York University can offer them.

“We want to facilitate interdisciplinary, critical thinking about different environments to encourage high school students to contribute their knowledge and desires for changing  the world,” said FES Associate Dean Leesa Fawcett, who also gave the conference’s closing presentation.

“Our hope is that by participating in presentations given by our current undergraduate and graduate students, high school students will see the possibilities our Environmental Studies Program can open up to them. At the same time, this was experiential education for our current student presenters – helping them gain tangible teaching skills and giving them an impressive new item for their resumés.”

At the end of the day, each high school student left Vari Hall with a York University Change Your World water bottle, a reminder of the activities they had participated in and the ideas they had developed. The bottle also represented a notion fundamental to environmental studies – that the world can be changed in small ways, such as by avoiding bottled water.

From her experience presenting, Karim saw that that the conference really brought the Change Your World message home to the high school students. “They left the workshops with a curiosity to question the everyday ideas and issues around them,” she said.

For more information on the Change Your World conference, e-mail besinfo@yorku.ca or call 416-736-5252.