Climate change education in action at this year’s Summer Institute

When you arrive at Saint John’s University, you may notice the preserved prairie on your left, the Abbey bell banner towering above the trees, and the red brick buildings that make up campus.

It doesn’t take long to understand that the campus and monastery were designed with intention toward sustainability.

When the monks who founded Saint John’s settled in this area in 1856, they were making the decision to stay for the long haul. They observe the Rule of St. Benedict, which has values of Stability and Stewardship, among others. This means they cultivate rootedness and care for all goods of this place; this “place” being a 2,700-acre section of Central Minnesota made up of prairie, forest, oak savanna, wetlands, and lakes as the home of a monastery and eventual university and outdoor school.

It makes sense that 150 years later, when I attended Saint John’s as a college student, I felt that same sense of place. While the landscape had surely changed since the first settlement, it was with careful planning and awareness of the longevity of their community that it still thrives. It was here that I discovered my sense of wonder for the natural environment, which is why I was so excited to be back on campus this summer, many years after graduating, to share it with over 50 people from across the country through Climate Generation’s 13th annual Summer Institute for Climate Change Education.

Climate Generation is a nonprofit in Minneapolis that engages people in climate change solutions, where I work as Senior Programs Coordinator supporting our outreach with educators, youth, and communities. Every year we hold a multi-day conference for educators from around the country with the goal of building their confidence, tools, and resources to bring climate change into their educational setting.

Place-based climate change education is an effective way to engage people with the issue of climate change.

By learning about local impacts, it makes climate change relevant and meaningful to people’s lives. It engages them in action-based learning to solve problems in their communities and draws on cultural values and beliefs from the history of the place.

Climate Generation wanted to highlight these components using Saint John’s campus as a model. Our educators learned about the climate change impacts of the area; the many systems of sustainability and resiliency already at work within the land, buildings, and community; and how it all connects to Saint John’s common mission and values.

To manage the land for a changing climate, Saint John’s has taken into account the importance of high species diversity for a resilient forest. A critical species of high-quality hardwood becoming more rare is oak. Oak trees are long-lived species and critical to the future health of the forest, but are shade intolerant and challenging to grow in high populations of deer. The regeneration of oak trees is a focus of the land management at Saint John’s, and we were able to see firsthand what practices they are using to encourage oak growth from the Land Manager.

In addition to creating a healthy forest, Saint John’s has a history of sustainably harvesting wood from their land to frame the buildings and build the furniture seen around campus today. Their practice makes sure harvesting does not exceed the net growth of the forest. Not only is wood harvested, but also clay for bricks and stones from the fields compose the foundation of many buildings on campus.

There is a deep connection to the mission of stewarding the land when building upon and changing the landscape.

Using local materials cuts down on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions it takes to construct buildings; from cutting down on transportation, to only harvesting what will be used, to producing on a smaller scale; the building and maintenance of Saint John’s is a great example of a climate change solution.

The Saint John’s Pottery is a unique program that looks holistically at the relationship between humans, science, nature, and art. For 35 years, artists have been making pottery from the available local materials. The stoneware material used to make the clay was excavated from a deposit in the area, and they also use discarded material from a local granite quarry as an ingredient. Reflecting back to the shared value of stability, the Saint John’s Pottery has made a commitment to plan far into the future; the amount of materials secured from this local area will last for over 300 years, exemplifying true planning for a changing future.

In 2009, Saint John’s initiated a collective action in response to climate change with the installation of a solar array. Over a quarter of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States come from our use and generation of electricity. Their solar array has grown in size and now provides almost 19% of Saint John’s annual energy needs. The installation was designed so that 80% of the land would not be disturbed; native prairie grasses and flowers have been planted around the panels to help with water absorption and provide a habitat for pollinators.

There are educational components to all of these models. Saint John’s is open to the public for tours, classes and labs for college students, and local school groups who attend field trips in the Arboretum provided by Saint John’s Outdoor University. Getting students outside is an essential component of climate change education.

We know that when students get outside they develop a sense of place, experience health benefits, connect with relevant learning experiences, and focus more in school and perform better.

At the Summer Institute, we stress the importance of taking students outside. It could be as basic as monitoring the weather everyday or a more intensive project like collecting data of seasonal changes over a period of time.

If you expose people to solutions and possibilities for action and education, generating an undercurrent of hope in the face of climate change, they feel more empowered to make change in their own communities. This is a goal of the Summer Institute, and holding it in a place like Saint John’s gave people a great place to start.

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