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Make Environmental Sustainability Actionable for Students with These Lessons

Small changes add up! Two free Lesson Plans at Science Buddies support elementary and middle school teachers using the interactive Your Plan, Your Planet tool to build student awareness and engagement with environmental issues and sustainability.

Two screenshots of sustainability themed project summary pages on the website ScienceBuddies.org

Can you help save the world? It's a big question. Students may think that saving the world is something others should do, not something regular people living in regular houses in regular communities can do. What impact can a single person have on the future of our planet?

Breaking down the big question about saving the world into smaller questions that highlight familiar, everyday behaviors and activities can help students see that they really can be part of the solution—and can start today. What problems does our planet face in the future? How are the problems related to things we do every day? Helping students discover ways they can make small changes that can really add up can make an empowering difference in how young people relate to environmental issues.

Science Buddies believes that creating personalized learning opportunities that help students see their own impact can motivate and mobilize students to begin actively making changes and advocating for change in their families, schools, and communities. To support teachers teaching about sustainability and environmental education with students, Science Buddies has developed two new Lesson Plans for use with Your Plan, Your Planet, a free, interactive online tool by Google, in partnership with the California Academy of Sciences and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation:

These free, NGSS-aligned Lesson Plans help elementary and middle school educators engage students with questions related to sustainability, personal impact, the idea of a circular economy, and what it means to have an ecological footprint.

We Consume Resources Every Day

According to the Your Plan, Your Planet tool, "our greatest impact on the planet" comes from how we use and produce food, water, energy, and stuff. Focusing on these four areas, the easy-to-use tool highlights the fact that we all have an impact on the planet. This impact is sometimes referred to as our ecological footprint, a way to think about the quantity of natural resources it takes to sustain our lifestyle.

Does it really matter how long your shower lasts? Is it better to wash dishes by hand? What do you do with clothes you no longer want? Does washing clothes in cold water save energy? How often do you unplug unused electronic devices? Do you throw out food each week that has gone bad or didn't get eaten?

These questions hint at some of the choices people make on a daily basis that relate to their ecological footprint. Each of these examples may seem small, but even small daily habits related to consumption and waste contribute to the problems of sustainability our world faces in the future. With a current global population of more than 7.5 billion, choices made by individuals, families, and households add up!

Teaching Sustainability in the Classroom

Sustainability is an important concept in environmental education and discussions about the future, but what does it really mean, and how can we teach kids about sustainability in ways that inspire them to make conservation-conscious choices? According to the United Nations (UN), sustainable development is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Multiple factors play a role in sustainability, including economic, social, and environmental factors.

The Sustainability: How Our Actions Affect the Environment and Sustainability: Reduce Your Environmental Impact! elementary and middle school lesson plans at Science Buddies focus on environmental aspects of sustainability. Each lesson plan is NGSS-aligned and outlines a hands-on STEM activity that uses Your Plan, Your Planet to examine personal impact on the environment by evaluating everyday activities related to consumption of food, water, stuff, and energy. In each of these four focus areas, Your Plan, Your Planet presents tips and interactive activities that help users assess their own impact and learn about sustainability. As they answer questions and complete activities in Your Plan, Your Planet, students learn how everyday activities, such as showering, washing dishes and laundry, or throwing out food and stuff, contribute to an individual's impact on the environment. For example, storing foods in proper locations can make foods last longer and reduce waste. Presented with an assortment of foods, users are challenged to drag each item into the best location in the refrigerator. You might be surprised by what you learn about food storage!

Your Plan, Your Planet encourages students to reflect on questions about personal use and waste and translates daily use into yearly numbers to help students visualize the larger impact of their actions. According to the tool, the average American family, for example, uses 300 gallons of water a day. When you convert that into gallons per year, you suddenly have three swimming pools of water used by every family. That's a lot of water! Similarly, throwing out even two slices of bread a week adds up to a yearly "water value" impact of enough water to fill 40 bathtubs. Your Plan, Your Planet uses water value as a measure of how many gallons of water it takes to produce an item. So when you throw a food item out, you are wasting the water value. Throwing out the equivalent of a cup of milk a week equates to a school bus full of wasted water over a year. Another way for students to quantify impact is to consider carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions for the items they consume. Your Plan, Your Planet helps students equate activities with CO2e (in pounds). For example, throwing out two slices of bread a week wastes the same amount of CO2e as driving a car at 55 miles/hour for 1 hour.

Sciences Buddies' Lesson Plans for Your Plan, Your Planet help teachers lead sustainability conversations and lessons with students. The Lesson Plans provide background information, a curated set of videos to share in the classroom, discussion prompts, a guided activity, and worksheet and assessment materials. After using Your Plan, Your Planet to explore areas of impact, elementary school students choose an actionable area of human impact and create a presentation to share with the class. Middle school students are challenged to choose an area and brainstorm ways in which they can reduce their impact by making specific changes with quantifiable outcomes. Students develop and then enact a plan to reduce their personal impact, monitor their efforts and gather data, and then present their personal sustainability projects to their classmates. As a class, students can assess the positive improvements in human impact made when all student projects are added together.

How much difference can a single student or household make when it comes to reducing consumption and waste of water, food, energy, and stuff? Students doing these activities and using Your Plan, Your Planet to explore will see that individual contributions quickly add up to make measurable change!

Science Buddies is proud to partner with Google in sharing guided lessons for Your Plan, Your Planet with educators to support and encourage conversations with students about sustainability.


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