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Getting to Cool: How Design Thinking Empowers Students to Take On Climate Change

Let’s be clear. Climate change is happening and kids are worried about it. This concern is not abstract and it is not political; it is existential. When Puerto Rican public high school students asked 50 of their peers if anything concerned them about their future, 80% said “global warming”or “deforestation”or “drought” or “water” or “flooding” or “hurricanes.” The rest mentioned the economy and, unsurprisingly, education. Okay, you might say, of course kids in PR are sensitized to climate issues. They just survived back-to-back natural disasters from which many have not yet recovered. So let’s also think about kids in the Midwest, Florida, Texas, California, Western “fire states,” the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, Alaska or Hawai’i….

Some people swing into action when they are afraid. But what elevates youth fears about climate change and could cause them to disengage is that they do not think that they/we have the means to fix it. According to some surveys, 12 or 13% already think it’s too late. In the media, in the political analysis, even in school, the emphasis is on proving that it is happening (or not), and explaining why and how fast. When hopeful solutions are shown, they are created by other people, people with wealth or academic status; not by “people like us.” This lowers student self-efficacy even further. According to Yale’s Center for Climate Change Communication (2019), pressing in with scientific reminders of vulnerability only compounds anxiety and surfaces trauma.

So, how might we build efficacy around climate change? Schools have succeeded in generating sweeping changes before, particularly where public health was at stake. Remember Smoky the Bear? In this age of information, we can’t protect kids from news about what’s happening, but we CAN help them to figure out how to USE scientific information about climate change to gain collaborative efficacy, build local and global connections, develop and advocate for local solutions. Indeed, there is no other option. Students CAN identify ways to improve air quality and keep temperatures lower so that asthma rates decline. Students CAN develop solutions for elders living in urban heat islands. Students CAN influence behavior at home, raising the sustainable living expectations to mitigate climate change, and they have the time, resourcefulness, and optimism to do it.

If we do not wish to overwhelm and paralyze, we cannot only teach the science of global warming. Students need efficacy in all disciplines—global understanding, storytelling and the complexities of human experience, statistical interpretation, economics and government, thoughtful introspection, deep noticing and listening, historical and current decision-making, social science, persuasive writing and critical, creative and analytical thinking. Children generally have greater optimism and creative confidence than adults. If we can build on their inherent positive attitude and resourcefulness, and give young people multi-disciplinary tools that will build their efficacy and ability to generate and bring about scalable solutions in their communities, we will empower a generation and save the planet.

In Bayamón, Puerto Rico, Escuela Francisco Manrique Cabrera (FMC) is an urban public school piloting “design thinking,” the name Stanford gave to a process and mindsets for “human-centered” problem-solving. It turns out that not only does teaching with design thinking build valuable 21st century skills, it helps to heal by building confidence in one’s ability to collaborate to solve any problem. During the intersession design labs, students in partnership with community, government, and NGO organizations have generated school and family emergency management plans, ideas for building community resilience hubs, and most recently began working with one of the most vulnerable communities nearby on coastal resilience. When students began their design lab work, they rated their own efficacy at a 1 out of 10. Then they used a reliable problem-solving process based on a strong foundation of observation, listening, research and their own deep capacity for empathy, learning to define the right problems to solve and ideate in multiple ways, building consensus, seeking feedback and iterating prototypes, and developing implementation plans in partnership with organizations who could bring them about. After 8 half-days, 22 students had implementation plans ready for “Floodable Housing,” a mental health “Wellness Bus,” a “Lift-off” safe evacuation area and map, and plans for making sure each household has a “Go-Bag,” and plans for some to help with Summer Camp in the community. In the summer camp? Teaching design thinking.

One Bayamón student wrote, “During and for a long time after the storm, all I could do was draw. I just drew and drew. Design Lab gave me my voice back. Now I know I have ideas that can help.”


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