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Inspiring and empowering young people

A blog post by Catriona Rae

Our Education and Learning Officer Catriona Rae tells us how her love of nature and the outdoors was nurtured during her schooldays in Canada - and why that means she is passionate about SDG 4 – Quality Education: “To ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

Environmental issues are in the news. From wildfires to floods, it’s a conversation that is impossible to avoid.

We want to raise a generation of young people that are empowered to act on environmental issues, not paralysed with fear for their future.

In order to do this, we need Sustainable Development Education and it needs to involve both critical thinking and hands on learning.  We need young people to have a sense of place.  A sense that their community and the natural world are places that belong to them, and that they belong in. 

If young people do not have this sense of belonging, they won't feel inspired to take care of our natural places, and we need them to care now more than ever because they need to accomplish what previous generations have failed to do.

I grew up in Northern Ontario in Canada and spent my summers hiking, swimming in Lake Superior and camping, and my winters cross country skiing and ice skating.  We built an ice rink on our school grounds for PE, and I spent ages building snow forts in the garden of my house.  I was outside a LOT no matter the weather and I loved it.  

When I was in high school we had an extra curricular group that did environmental projects – an Eco-Committee of sorts.  We started a recycling programme at the school, planted trees, and lobbied teachers to photocopy less.  But it was clear that we wanted to do much more than that and it was thanks to our teachers who recognised our passion for environmental issues and used it as a learning opportunity, that we learned things that would stay with us for life.

Our teachers recognised that not all learning takes place indoors with books. They began taking us outside and encouraging us to take on larger projects.

We adopted a beach called Harmony Beach not far from our town, and started visiting regularly to pick up small amounts of litter and transplant Marram dune grass. Marram grass is an important species as its extensive matted root system works to prevent erosion by providing a structure to support the sand dunes during the storms that are a regular part of life on Lake Superior’s northern shores.

This support structure helps other more vulnerable plants to establish themselves in the dunes. Harmony is a beautiful beach and has lots of visitors especially during the warmer summer months.  Many people would pull grass out in their quest to find the perfect suntanning spot, not realising that by doing this they were harming the beach they loved so dearly.

In order to stop this the eco group spoke to some of the residents in the hopes that if they saw someone destroying the grass they could stop them.  We also worked in partnership with the Ministry of Natural Resources to spread the word to beach users that the grass should be left to protect the sand.

We planted trees up the shore to further protect the beach from erosion.  The previous lack of trees had left the sand vulnerable and bare in some places, allowing it to erode and blow across the highway.  If nothing had been done the entire beach would have moved inland. A similar project is described here.

We spent a lot of time at our favourite beach and nearby, ice fishing, hiking, making repairs, and checking on our trees and grass.  We grew to love these trips and ended up travelling around Lake Superior in a bus speaking at high schools about our project and encouraging them to take on something similar.

We didn’t have Eco-Schools back then, but the work that we were doing was exactly this. A group of pupils planning projects for the whole school to get involved in, after reviewing the situation, with benefit to the community, and measuring our results to ensure success.

Our teachers saw these trips not only as something nice to do but as an integral part of our learning. We wrote French poems at Robertsons cliffs, studied biology while ice fishing for perch,  wrote persuasive articles for the local press in English class, and conducted water quality surveys with students from Illinois. Geography lessons were spent transplanting trees and learning about erosion and soil types. My locker was full of books and PE kit but also shovels, hiking boots and maps.

Because I grew up learning about the environment by actually spending time in it, I developed a very strong attachment to the outdoors and a strong desire to find a career doing something about environmental issues.

Now I am fortunate to spend my working days hearing from pupils all over Scotland about what they’re doing to protect the places they love.  It is my hope that time spent caring for the natural environment now will mean a lifetime of helping to keep Scotland beautiful for future generations.

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