Teaching Kiddos About Sustainability Through Real-World Experiences

Written by: Dr. Auriane Koster, Sustainability Manager

One of the best ways to learn about sustainability is to go out there and see or do sustainability. Teaching sustainability in the classroom is a great first step, but when the kiddos get a chance to see these real-world problems and solutions in the real-world, the material tends to be engrained in them forever. This blog will focus on those real-world opportunities.

One place that I get asked about a lot is Biosphere 2. Owned by the University of Arizona, and located in Oracle, AZ (just north of Tucson), Biosphere 2 was originally built to be an artificial and completely closed ecological system, allowing people to live and research the different biomes in one place. The structure includes a rainforest, ocean with a coral reef, mangrove wetland, savannah grassland, fog desert, and agricultural system. To this day, it remains the largest closed system in the world. Located on 3.14 acres, Biosphere 2 is “a laboratory for controlled scientific studies, an arena for scientific discovery and discussion, and a far-reaching provider of public education.” They offer a few different opportunities for students, including: 1. an educator-led, interactive, behind-the-scenes tour; 2. A group public tour; and 3. A summer Science Academy where middle and high school students can spend a week in the research facility.

One of my favorite places in the valley is the Desert Botanical Garden. Located on 140 acres in Papago Park since 1939, DBG wants “to advance excellence in education, research, exhibition and conservation of desert plants of the world with emphasis on the Southwestern United States.” The Garden values stewardship, interdependence, authenticity, and accountability. In this light, the Garden provides a variety of opportunities for young people. For Pre-K through 8th grade, the Garden has a guided field trip called Sonoran Desert Adventure, which is set to Arizona State Standards. There is also a self-guided group tour, independent study for high school and college students, a Girl Scouts Desert Discovery program (which earns the girls an activity patch), and kids-based camps and programs. DBG is also currently providing two teacher workshop opportunities on biomimicry and butterflies.

Also located in Papago Park is the Phoenix Zoo. The brainchild of Robert E. Maytag (yep, the appliance company!), the zoo opened in 1962 as the Maytag Zoo, but was changed to the Phoenix Zoo only one year later. Since opening, the zoo has served 43 million guests, and has operated one the world’s most successful global wildlife conservation programs for the Arabian oryx. As a nonprofit, the Zoo values collaboration, respect, accountability, initiative, and fun. The Zoo operates a wide variety of school and teacher opportunities, all set to Arizona State Standards. Their field trips include guided tours, wild workshops, animal discoveries, special needs programs, a nightcamp, and puppet shows. Can’t make it to the Zoo? Well then let the Zoo come to you with their ZooToYou, Zoomobile, and Distance Learning programs. The Phoenix Zoo also has a variety of opportunities for teachers to earn CEU credits, including: Growing Up Wild curriculum training, This is Arizona!, the Leopold Education Project, Celebrate Earth Day Educator Workshop, and Science and the Endangered Species Educator Workshop.

Looking to get your hands a little dirty? The Salt River Landfill provides guided tours of their recycling facility and landfill. The tour includes a 19-minute video with a trash trivia quiz afterward. Depending on the size of the group, the Landfill will also provide a ride up to the working face of the landfill. The Salt River Landfill consists of 200 acres serving Mesa, Scottsdale, Gilbert, and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa and Fort McDowell Indian communities. The Landfill is projected to reach its capacity in 2032, operates as a Bioreactor, and has a gas pipeline system that connects to the Tri-Cities Generating Plant, allowing for the landfill gas to turn into power.

While my blog could go on-and-on, I want to include a few other honorable mentions. The Roosevelt Center of Sustainability, located in the Roosevelt School District (but not limited to those in the district), provides hands-on activities, a greenhouse tour, interactive sustainability exhibits, chef demonstrations, and a movie theater. Have Keep Phoenix Beautiful come to your classroom and teach your kiddos about recycling, stormwater, plastics, gardens, landfills, and sustainability. Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium, and Safari Park is a perfect complement to any biology curriculum, Valley Metro has a variety of transit education opportunities, visit a working dairy farm at Shamrock Farms, and experience a Serengeti preserve at the Out of Africa Wildlife Park. At the Arizona Museum of Natural History you and the kiddos can do a self-guided gallery exploration and experience being a real archaeologist.

No matter where you go, you and the students will get to use all of the senses to fully grasp a variety of sustainability topics. And have fun while doing it!