Sustainable Me: Learning From Nature and Schools As Ecosystems
The following is an edited transcript from the Sustainable Me Podcast recorded in the summer of 2016. Over the course of twelve and a half minutes, we touch on permaculture, biophilic design, and an ecological approach to education. Sustainable Me is a web/video series and podcast that explores sustainability in the province of Alberta. For more on Sustainable Me, visit SustinableMeYEG.ca.
My name is Dustin Bajer and I work on a variety of sustainable, urban agriculture, and biophilic projects. I’ve been teaching at Jasper Place High School and am passionate about project-based sustainability programming. Since 2010, we’ve put in a couple food forests in at the school, built an aquaponic system, living walls, and have raised tilapia. It’s been a fantastic adventure; exploring all these topics with students and trying to grow food at the same time.
On Learning From Nature
Gardening was something that my parents were into. I hated it. It was work. You’d come home from school and have to weed the garden. When I wasn’t reluctantly gardening, I was running around the forest building forts. I think that was a formative time for me. I didn’t realize it at the time but in hindsight I was observing two parallel systems. The fist was a garden. It was a lot of work. You’re out there weeding, tilling and making sure that there aren’t any pests. Then you’ve got a forest (literally across the road). Nobody watered or tilled it. Nobody weeded it. The whole thing struck me as odd. Two systems both growing things. Why was one so much more work than the other? What is it about a conventional garden that makes it so much work and what is it about a forest that allows it to manage itself? Can we apply the lessons from nature into human-built systems? Whether a garden bed, an education system or a food system, what kinds of lessons can we draw from the natural world and apply to the built one? These early memories really shaped my thinking later on in life and I ultimately came to view sustainability as a design problem with nature as the perfect toolkit.
On Education And The Benefit Of Project-Based Learning
Right off the bat, the education system has to exclude a lot of interesting stuff. Things that could make a real difference in the life of a student who hasn’t found their thing yet. It’s not out of malice. There are only so many hours in the day so something has to give. It’s the unfortunate reality. Then we teach this narrow subset knowledge in a very linear way. Kids go to class, the bell rings, they move to the next class. It’s a very industrial model. It simplifies and compartmentalizing knowledge but fails to show how knowledge can bridge disciplines. Students can’t easily transfer knowledge and skills out of context. Setting up our discrete subjects is artificial. I wish we could depend more on projects. Project are inherently cross-curricular. If you’re building an aquaponic system you can say it’s a biology but we can also talk about food security, animal husbandry, and plant science. We can create a users manual so now we’re developing communications skills and design. Projects inevitably touch on a variety of outcomes.
Schools As Ecosystems
A forest is stable because of its connections and relationships. It’s a mess but it’s very resilient mess. You can cut connections in the forest but the forest stays intact. Forests, like brains, are networks. If a forest taught a lesson it would consciously link each skill to as many other concepts and disciplines as possible. It’s this network, this jumble of information that makes concepts stick. If you learn about and use the quadratic equation in math class and physics class and social studies the more relevant and useful it becomes. If you can tie meaning to it from multiple disciplines then that become a resilient idea in the mind of the learner. The only way that I really know how to tackle that is through projects. I want to garden like an eco-system. I want to teach like an eco-system.
On School Food Security
At Jasper Place High School, one in five students come to school hungry. Provincially it’s sometime like 1 in 7. And there’s a lot of different reasons for that; a lack of skills, finances, transportation, cultural capital, etc.
I’ve been the most interested in growing food with students (especially if we can grow food like an eco-system). Though, in 2015, we received funding from Breakfast For Learning (supported by Loblaws) to create and run a breakfast program. Each morning, students would convene in the kitchen, take raw ingredients, and make free breakfast for students. What’s great is that we’re also working on food literacy. Students are learning about safety and hygiene, food prep, and sanitization. They’ll be able to take those skills home with them.
On The Future (Of Everything)
I’m pretty optimistic about the future. I believe that we can work with the natural world in ways that benefit it and ourselves. There’s a dangerous cultural narrative that humans are bad and only making things worse. You hear kids talking about how the planet would be better off if people disappeared. It’s unfortunate to hear. People can do some pretty amazing things. Food in schools has been a really good context for me to explore our relationship to the natural world. Everybody eats. And if you can grow food in a way that benefits the natural world that’s pretty inspiring. In an ideal world, we’d flip the narrative and see ourselves as forces for/of nature. That future looks so much brighter to me.
I can’t help but think that an education system that embraced the natural world would inherently be modeled after aspects of it. If schools worked more like forests we could creates abundance. That’s sustainable and inherently more interesting to me.
End Edited Transcript
For more about the ideas above, I’ve included Sustinable Me – Epidode 5 – Econo-Me.