29 November 2016

Rooting sustainability starts on school benches

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How can we prepare students for the environmental challenges ahead? One way is to show younger generations the path towards smart cities of the future

Do young people know what a smart city is? Do they care about saving energy and preserving the Earth’s resources? “Rooting sustainability starts on the benches of schools,” affirmed UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova at the recent UN Climate Change Conference (COP22) in Marrakech, Morocco.

Consuelo García, one of the teachers at CEIP Miguel Hernández, Valladolid, Spain, agrees with Bokova: education is an integral part of any strategy to combat climate change. For example, with 60 school children between 10 and 11 years old, she took part in a green tour of the Torrelago district in Laguna de Duero, near Valladolid. It is Europe’s largest retrofit site, designed to save a lot of energy and to substantially cut CO2. They learnt a lot on energy sustainability and climate impacts and “They were amazed with the different flame colours from biomass heating!”, tells García.

The tour was organised under the European project Cityfied during the 2016 European Sustainable Energy Week and was an opportunity to approach sustainability and energy efficiency with school children. The education programme included a visit to the biomass boiler room, insulation technologies and façades of the buildings. Moreover, pupils played games and quizzes to help them become more aware of energy challenges.

“It was important to show them that these types of action are not just content on paper. When children see the practical side of things close up, they are more able to grasp the need for sustainability,” adds Consuelo García.

Another approach to explain sustainability and smart cities has been adopted in Barcelona through the Smart Education programme for schools. “The sessions included activities that allow kids to approach concepts such as mobility, digital industrialisation and sustainability. They learnt more about the city and what lay behind many projects and services that we have incorporated into daily life through technology. We also found some new technology-enabled opportunities,” relates Francesca Bria, chief technology and digital innovation officer at ‎Barcelona city council.

The insufficient awareness of young people about energy saving is a real problem. “Energy consumption is something invisible. When young people move into private accommodation, this may lead to very hefty bills,” says Richard Bull from De Montfort University, Leicester, one of the coordinators of Saves (Students Achieving Valuable Energy-Savings).

The project involves a competition among student dormitories to save energy. Over 450 dormitories in 17 universities have participated, representing some 29,000 students across five European countries during the last two academic years. This programme provides quality engagement with students, enabling and motivating them to save energy in their dormitories by adopting specific actions such as switching off appliances when not in use.

When student champions in each block of each dormitory are nominated, they in turn encourage their peers and thus create a race to see who will save the most energy and thus win prizes. They tap into online student communities through social media, to raise awareness about how students can save energy in a fun way.

“Engaging students is key,” says Richard Bull. Encouraging energy-saving habits in young people at a key moment of their lives is fundamental to ensuring they carry through after they move out of dormitories.

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