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Meet Denmark's School Where Education Is All About Sustainability
By James Clasper
A dozen children are sitting in a circle when the bell rings. Instead of rushing to their next class, the children close their eyes.
"Raise your hand when you can no longer hear a sound," said their teacher, holding a pair of bronze cymbals — the kind you might find in a Buddhist temple. One by one, their hands go up.
At the Green Free School (Den Gronne Friskole), in Copenhagen, educating children for a world affected by climate change begins with putting them in the right frame of mind — literally. Classes here include urban farming and often start with mindfulness training.
"We thought about what kids need to learn to take part in the green transition we're going to go through," said Phie Ambo, a Danish filmmaker who founded the school in 2014 with American translator Karen MacLean. "They need to learn to be courageous and take risks. And they need to learn some basic things about the planet and how we as human beings exist together. I couldn't really see that happening in the Danish school system."
Rethinking the Syllabus
Unlike the country's regular state-funded schools, the Green Free School — which has 200 pupils aged six to 15 — puts sustainable living at the heart of its syllabus.
At first glance, there's nothing unusual about the Green Free School. It occupies four inconspicuous buildings in a post-industrial neighborhood southeast of Copenhagen's center. Only a woodshed flanking a paint-daubed playground hints at a different kind of institution.
Its main building — made entirely of sustainable materials — houses a workshop where pupils learn to sew and use materials such as wood, clay, wax, felt, metal and plastic. They also learn to compost, repair bicycles and collect rainwater.
In shaping the syllabus, founder Ambo drew inspiration from "systems thinking" — a way of looking at the world in terms of its underlying patterns and interrelated systems. Pupils are encouraged to think about these systems through time spent outdoors exploring the world and gaining hands-on experience growing vegetables, while learning about edible plants and climatic conditions.
One 12-year-old pupil said she was "a little nervous about the future" because of the climate crisis, but felt she learned a lot at the school.
According to deputy principal Suzanne Crawfurd, the school's teaching method combines "project-based learning and design thinking." In other words, you won't see teachers at blackboards or children in front of screens. Instead they do hands-on projects that are supervised by several teachers and span different subjects. For example, the children might learn how to forage edible mushrooms, then practice drawing them, before heading into the kitchen to make mushroom soup.
Despite its alternative approach, setting up the school was easy, Ambo says. While most schools in Denmark are publicly run, anyone can set up a private "free school," with the state covering about three-quarters of its costs and the rest being made up by fees.
Tuition at the Green Free School costs 2,600 DKK a month (about €350, $380) — and it sets aside at least 5% of its budget to provide bursaries to children whose parents can't afford the fees. That means its pupils come from "a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds" in Copenhagen, said Ambo.
By law, a "free school" must follow the national curriculum. In addition to learning to read and write, they study history, maths and science. But otherwise it's permitted to devise its own syllabus, allowing the Green Free School to teach subjects like urban farming and greenwashing. "They [the pupils] need to learn to grow their own food and they need to be able to see through companies that claim they are sustainable — because we don't have time for that," Ambo said.
The Danish Green Free School isn't the only educational institution in Europe with an "eco-friendly syllabus." Berlin's Hagenbeck high school, for instance, teaches students about the importance of species and ecosystems, successfully incorporating biodiversity throughout its hands-on curriculum.
Ambo said she hopes the Danish school will inspire young teachers to apply its approach in other schools in a country where climate change is becoming a growing political focus. Last December, the Danish parliament passed a climate law committing the country to reduce carbon emissions to 70% below 1990 levels by 2030.
Green Transition and Its Challenges
Still, the school's founders have faced hurdles. The site that Ambo and MacLean chose for it was polluted with chemicals used to clean ships — a drawback they turned to their advantage. "It used to be one of the most toxic places in Copenhagen, but we decided to make it part of the curriculum," said Ambo. The school's inaugural intake of 43 pupils duly learned "what kind of trees and plants can remove chemicals from the earth and how to live in and transform places that are tainted by the old industrial way of thinking."
While the school provides more structure in its teaching today, Ambo admits it isn't ideal for children with severe learning difficulties. Moreover, its students don't sit exams. "It's definitely not for everyone," Ambo concedes. "Some parents think it sounds good and then they realize there won't be any tests or exams and withdraw their kids." At 15 pupils move on to further education at other schools, where they usually gain formal qualifications.
Freed from learning geared toward telling examiners what they want to hear, the school aims to equip students to draw their conclusions about the world. But it does have a clear aim of where those conclusions should lead. "We're saying to the students, 'Be critical, think for yourself, and do what you want — but we want you to make the green transition,'" said Dorthe Junge, principal of the Green Free School. "That's a challenge."
Reposted with permission from DW.
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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