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Part 1- What Should Leaders of the Future Study? Economics? Ecology? Art? Engineering? Medicine?

Note- Radha leads the curricular track– Planetary Web: Nature, Society and the Individual at GenWise. In this series of posts, she talks about her work with children- where teacher and students engage with real-life issues and in the process, investigate complex relationships. Their actions and responses arise from this engagement and the understanding born out of it.

Post 1 narrates an experience on engaging with solid management. Post 2 carries on seamlessly from Post 1 to contrast the experience of students on the waste management project with the standard approach in the curriculum, and makes a case for studying a network of inter-dependencies and relationships in any situation. Post 2 also outlines what students can expect in her series of ‘New Thinking for a New World’ courses in Summer 2020. Post 3 outlines the engagement of a residential school with the community around it on the issue of sharing water. This post introduces the idea of ‘commons’- the subject of one of her courses in Summer 2020. See the links at the end of this post to navigate to Radha’s upcoming courses.

What better way to start exploring this question than recalling stories from school – those of a teacher-learner! I received my ‘education-for-life’ engaging with adults and children in a residential school in the semi-arid hills of the Rayalseema region of Andhra Pradesh. Bear with me as I describe the landscape a bit to set context to the story. The school is an urban community of teachers, children and a large community of people from the surrounding villages who held the community together by cooking, cleaning and taking care of the campus. Urban infrastructure in the form of centralised water supply, sewerage, waste collection systems etc., did not exist. The school’s water supply came from its own borewells and septic tanks managed the wastewater. Solid waste was collected on campus and periodically carted away to a distant location.

One of my roles in the school was teaching Environmental Science to Class 11 and 12 students. Being an elective, it was a small group that chose to study the subject. Most school curricula club any exploration of the environment under Environmental Science or EVS. This is often taught as a ‘science’ subject. However in this school I always had students both from Humanities and Science streams: a truly multidisciplinary group that lent itself to vibrant discussions. One of the topics of study in 11th was Solid Waste Management. Typically, issues such as managing the mounting solid waste in our cities is seen as a science and technology problem for which technological solutions are listed in textbooks. Our policy makers, city Corporations and councils also view it as a problem for which a technological solution needs to be identified: new pickup trucks for waste collection, treatment technologies such as bio-mining, energy from waste, incineration and so on, or finding new locations to dump the city’s waste. As far as citizens are concerned, we are faced with overflowing garbage bins and an intractable public health problem. But suppose we were to step back a bit and try to trace the journey of solid waste from our homes to the final disposal site – what will it tell us?

This is what a group of 15-16 year olds and I did, to try and understand the issue of solid waste on our school campus. We started by inspecting the waste collection area in the school, identified the different types of waste and discovered that the biggest contribution comes from shiny, colourful plastic biscuit wrappers. The students then mapped the journey of the biscuit wrappers from source to the waste collection area and from the waste collection area to the final point of disposal The source of the biscuit wrappers was the tuck shop from which students buy biscuits. At the other end they discovered that since we were located in a rural community there was no systematic waste collection system. All the waste is taken from the school in a school vehicle and deposited at a solid waste disposal site located about 20 km away. This site is managed by the nearby town’s municipal council. A visit to the site showed us that the site was a dump yard where waste was piled in large heaps with no systematic sorting, treatment or contained disposal systems. A few dogs were digging into the waste piles. The students also noted that the site was located close to a few small villages who would have to deal with the stench from the site. This led to an extensive discussion on the ecological impact of the waste on soil, groundwater and air (we learnt that the waste is periodically burnt here to reduce the size of the piles) and how it compromises the health and lives of people in the area: people who do not have the means to move elsewhere or protest the presence of this dump in their backyard.

Having mapped the waste from end to end, the students held several meetings in which they explained the entire issue and came up with options to reduce this waste. Option 1 involved writing to the biscuit manufacturers requesting that the packaging for the biscuits be reduced by packing them in bulk in metal containers when supplying to the school. Option 2 was to make these biscuits (they were chocolate chip!) in school completely eliminating the need for packaging. Both options were led and implemented by Class XII students. Option 2 was a huge success as some of the Class XII students got recipes from parents and teachers and worked with the Kitchen to bake these biscuits. The biscuits were a big hit and over time now the Kitchen churns out whole wheat sweet and savoury biscuits.

Several things happened here: a systemic analysis of the issue of solid waste in the school, identifying the most significant contributor to the ‘problem’, a democratic, collaborative and collective approach to respond to the issue i.e., finding ‘solutions’ and then taking responsibility to implement the agreed upon strategy. At the heart of this was students mapping and understanding the relationships between choices they made for snacks and its impact on the larger socio-ecological system and then arriving at responses based on an understanding of these relationships.

Post 2 carries on from here to contrast the experience of students on the waste management project with the standard approach in the curriculum, and makes a case for studying a network of inter-dependencies and relationships in any situation.

Courses by Radha in Summer 2020-

For children entering grade 8, 9 or 10-

For children entering grade 5, 6 or 7


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