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Using Fund for Teachers Grants to Research Sustainability


By Carrie Pillsbury 

Their summer itineraries read like a global sustainability consultant’s work plan:

  • Tour Geothermal Power Stations in Iceland;

  • Observe operations at a Waste-to-Energy plants in Amsterdam;

  • Research solar settlements in Germany;

  • Explore the world’s first zero-waste town in Italy;

  • Design products using sustainable materials in Ghana;

  • Interview sustainable business owners in Argentina and Chile.

The individuals tackling these tasks, however, are teachers – recipients of Fund for Teachers grants who designed fellowships to pursue sustainability issues that engage their students as innovators and activists.

Fund for Teachers has awarded $23 million in teacher grants to 6,500 pre-K through 12th-grade teachers since 2001. Grant recipients design their own summer fellowships based on learning gaps (theirs and/or their students'), and sustainability-related fellowships are on the rise. The number of teachers applying for “green fellowships” more than doubled over the past five years, with only one teacher applying for such a fellowship 10 years ago.

Victoria Merriweather, a teacher at Paul International High School in Washington D.C., spent two weeks in July volunteering at the Kokrobitey Institute in Accra, Ghana. Merriweather worked alongside students using traditional skills and textile methods to create children’s lunch bags out of recycled materials. She also observed classes where students learn how to turn their creations into profitable enterprises.

"Sustainability is not at the top of a lot of my students’ priority lists, and understandably so," Merriweather said. "In our neighborhood, plagued with violence, food deserts and poverty, many of my students do not see the direct connection between protecting our natural resources and improving their immediate environment. So, I designed my Fund for Teachers fellowship to learn from a community - where needs are also great - how to use recycled materials to create basic essentials that will serve our community for years to come."

With her new skills and insight, Merriweather plans to establish a social entrepreneurship program at Paul International High School that guides students' design of products using sustainable materials to generate revenue for the school and surrounding areas.
“By developing a curriculum that produces future business owners, my students can contribute to the restoration of our community's businesses, neighborhoods and traditions. Assisting students on entrepreneurial quests can, unlike standardized tests, extend into lifelong skills and learning experiences.”

With a $10,000 Fund for Teachers grant, a teaching team from New York City researched global corporations and initiatives to spark students’ interest in becoming scientifically-literate problem solvers.

Katelin Corbett and Danielle Neubauer, teachers at New Explorations into Science Technology and Math High School in Manhattan, designed their Fund for Teachers fellowship to investigate the science, engineering and citizen awareness involved in the European urban sustainability movement.

Their odyssey started in Iceland, with guided tours of the Hellisheidi Geothermal Power Station, the Irofoss Hydro-Power Station and Sorpa, a company that transforms water into methane. In Copenhagen, they observed the city’s initiatives to become carbon neutral by 2025, including Denmark’s bicycle superhighways. Neubauer and Corbett visited Sweden’s Solar Region Skane, an association striving to raise awareness of solar energy technologies among the general public, then documented sustainable practices in three German cities. Finally, in Amsterdam, the duo visited a Waste-to-Energy plant. Each stop included interviews with industry experts and citizen activists.

“This fellowship helped us realize that sustainability means different things to people in different places. The dream of being carbon neutral is on the horizon for many European cities, but does not look the same in Denmark as it does in Iceland or as it could in America. This is why it is important to educate our students about the social, political and economic implications of creating a green community,” Corbett said.

Having the opportunity to see a geothermal power plant is far more inspiring then reading through the specifications online.” added Neubauer.

“During the coming school year, we will provide students with a hands-on approach to designing and building models of solar energy technology and encourage them to examine and compare sustainable initiatives and businesses within their communities and the greater New York metro area. We believe it’s important for our students to understand that a collective commitment to a better future begins with sustainable solutions.”

Additional 2015 FFT Fellows pursuing sustainability learning this summer include:

  • Amanda Dennard (Atascocita High School - Humble, TX) who documented sustainable business practices in Brazil and Argentina to learn how emerging markets balance increased productivity and economic growth with social/environmental sustainability efforts to develop a global business unit for students interested in social action;

  • Becca White & Stacy Slater (Ursula Stephens Elementary - Katy, TX) who researched the sustainable food movement in Italy by exploring organic gardens, specifically the first Zero-Waste town of Capannori, to influence organic gardening projects within the school community and influence students’ healthy food choices; and,

  • Daniel Kim (Downey High School - Downey, CA) who explored the flora and fauna of Costa Rica’s marine coastal and rainforest biomes to create more tangible and relevant learning tools for AP Environmental Science students that will improve their comprehension of sustainability and environmental conservancy.

For more information about Fund for Teachers and applying for a 2016 summer grant, visit fundforteachers.org and the nonprofit's blog.

As Fund for Teachers’ director of communications, Carrie Pillsbury curates and communicates Fellows’ stories of exploration that impact education. You can contact her at carrie.pillsbury@fundforteachers.org and follow FFT Fellow’s unique contributions to classrooms on the organization’s blog.

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