Seeding Sustainability Early Part 2: Engaging High School Students

Fairleigh Dickinson University organizes case-based sustainability challenges, praised by high school students and teachers.


Want to inspire the next generation to lead sustainably? Start early.

That’s the approach of the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise (ISE) at Silberman School of Business, Fairleigh Dickinson University (United States). ISE reaches upstream in two ways: (1) it engages high school students directly through applied sustainability challenges, and (2) it offers professional development for primary and secondary school teachers, equipping them to teach sustainability. Joel Harmon, ISE Executive Director, shares ISE’s processes, outcomes and advice in a two-part series.

Inspire Youth by Engaging High School Students

To engage high school students directly, ISE co-organizes a series of High School Sustainability Challenges with the Student Global Ambassador Program. With the help of student volunteers from Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU), ISE has run three Challenges since 2014. Each has taken a case-based approach, challenging students to design solutions to real sustainability problems. Past Challenges have focused on renewable energy. The 4th Challenge, scheduled for October 2015, will engage students in social entrepreneurship.

Why High School Students?

It’s not common for college-based centres to engage high school students, despite the potential payoffs. For centre directors trying to make the case internally, Harmon believes, “the simple business case argument is future enrollment. Competition for students is increasing and school administrators love that we’re bringing top high school students to our campus. We are increasing their understanding of and demand for sustainability programs and showing them our university fosters such programs.” ISE also secured full external funding for these activities, making the activities an easy internal sell.

Why Cases?

Problem-based learning teaches students to apply their knowledge in new contexts. And, America’s high school curriculum requires the use of problem-based learning. “Case-based challenges feed two birds with the same crumb,” says Harmon. “Students learn to think sustainably, in a way that meets existing curricular requirements.” It’s a win-win for ISE, high school students and their teachers.

Why Renewable Energy?

ISE has focused past Challenges on renewable energy for two reasons. First, local energy companies were willing to provide funding, student guidance and real-life cases. Second, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) is a priority area in the American curriculum. And it’s an area in which students are struggling, according to standardized testing. Challenges support STEM education while empowering the next generation to think and act sustainably.

Significant Outcomes 

More than 200 high school students, 20 teachers, ten renewable energy experts and 25 university student volunteers have participated in the past three Challenges. In evaluations, students reported learning a lot (4.0/5.0) and teachers called the challenges extremely engaging for students (4.8/5.0) and very aligned with curriculum goals (4.3/5.0).

The 2016 Challenge

The most recent challenge, hosted in April 2016, challenged students to design a solar array for a local high school. Folsom Labs provided students with free access to Helioscope, software used to design solar panel systems. In advance of the Challenge, teachers familiarized their students with basic electricity and solar panel concepts and asked students to design a system for their own school. This pre-work gave students a base knowledge, so they could achieve deeper knowledge application at the event.

The morning of the Challenge, local solar experts hosted interactive demonstrations and coached students through discussion of their pre-work. Students were then divided into mixed-school teams, each challenged to design a solar panel system for a local high school and calculate the resulting reductions in energy use and greenhouse emissions. The school used in the case had already installed a solar panel system and a leader from the project provided real-time feedback on student designs.

Insights from the Past Three Challenges

Harmon reflects on lessons learned:

  • High school students are different from college students. “They have even shorter attention spans,” says Harmon. “So it’s especially important to keep information crisp, short, visual and conversational.”

  • Teachers are already overloaded. If you want to reach students, your activities must align with existing curriculum requirements; they can’t be an add-on. And while pre-work helps students develop a topical foundation, don’t count on all teachers delivering the pre-work. You should still cover some of the basics at the start of your event.

  • “My most important learning,” says Harmon, “Is that teenage boys are eating machines.” And he’s only half joking. Be sure to order more food than you think you’ll need!

More Information

Read Part I of this series, Seeding Sustainability Early: Supporting Teachers.

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  • Chelsea Hicks-Webster

    Chelsea spent her master’s degree studying ecosystem health in Kenya and is the former Operations Manager for The Network for Business Sustainability. She’s also a certified life coach. Chelsea now splits her time between her two passion projects; sustainability writing and editing, and helping over-stressed mothers improve their mental health and find more joy in life.

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