SACHA | How can we make more young people want to save the world?

Climate change is the most fundamental threat to the future of our planet – but how can a broad and diverse group of young people be engaged in a meaningful way to tackle the crisis? Students from the University of Edinburgh suggested that a Green Entrepreneur project and a badge system to encourage local activism would be good places to start. 


MORE than 90% of teachers in UK schools are concerned about climate change – but only 30% feel they have the skills and training necessary to teach the topic to students.

This is not just an abstract ‘saving the planet’ issue, but also about future employment. More than 11 million had green energy jobs globally in 2019, and this is predicted to increase to a startling 42 million by 2050.

If teachers are largely ill-equipped to engage with climate change education and inform pupils about future roles, what needs to be done to address this very significant gap?

Students taking part in the University of Edinburgh’s Students As Change Agents (Sacha) summer programme set out to examine this – partnering with Apps for Good, an independent charity which works with teachers to unlock the potential of over 200,000 students around the UK, and beyond, with free technology courses. Three groups of students, from across the world and covering a wide range of subjects, were posed this question in an intensive, month-long project: How might we equip young people from all backgrounds with the skills they need to tackle the climate crisis?

Students recognised the challenge of making climate change real and moving from those big, abstract issues that can seem very daunting into something meaningful for young people.

One of the groups said: “What we found particularly difficult was that when we started talking about our initial ideas, they were very broad and abstract and perhaps sometimes quite ambitious. We found it difficult to narrow those down to something tangible and achievable.

“We wanted to move away from abstract values by associating them with specific skills and implementing them in practical ways.”

And they did….

Creating a generation of green entrepreneurs

Data shows that just 100 large global companies have been responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) since 1988.

One group of students suggested that personal actions like rejecting plastic straws or using more public transport were positive individual changes, but could make young people feel helpless, and that their individual efforts were insignificant in the face of giant corporations and unstoppable forces.

The Green Entrepreneur programme was designed by the students for those wishing to learn about the risks and opportunities associated with climate change, and how they can be incorporated into business through innovation. Students would learn about areas that contribute significantly to the climate crisis, and which they could easily relate to, such as fashion, food and transport.

They would be taught to analyse current unsustainable business practices, and compare them with green business models.

The programme students felt that young people were more likely to choose the programme “if it sounded less like a typical classroom experience and really fun”. They added: “Over the course of the school term, we’ll work together in small groups to solve a key problem with their choice relating to one of the industries they’ve studied – and they will present their ideas to win prizes.

“We hope to instil personal and professional skills within missions through individual as well as teamwork, and problem-solving tasks. It’s strongly about transferable skills – critical thinking, collective action coming up with solutions to complicated problems. That can be applied to lots of different areas of the climate crisis. We aim to help them gather and critically analyse data, and to deliver effective presentations and manage projects.”

In the longer-term, the students planned to offer more advanced courses, with more exposure to industry experts – and suggested a programme of ‘intrapreneurs’, where young people were embedded inside a business.


Working for the badge

Another group outlined an idea for an after-school club, where climate-conscious young people could meet, chat, learn skills and work as a team – and earn badges for learning climate-related skills.

They would be invited to focus on four broad topics: conservation; sustainable lifestyle; skills for the future, including a focus on careers; and being an engaged citizen.

The students said: “We feel all four areas are important, and splitting them up helps make this huge task feel more manageable. We think a system of earning and collecting badges will incentivize and provide a sense of fun to what can be a stressful topic.”

They showed mock-up badge designs for activities such as litter hikes, tree planting, and growing food. The badges could be physical or virtual, with success judged on the number and type of badges achieved, and the drop-out rate.

​​One of the students said: “Never underestimate how much young people like earning badges. If there’s a missing badge, a skill they don’t have, young people want to fill that gap.”

Matt Guy, Head of Fundraising and Partnerships at Apps for Good, asked whether or not after-school clubs alone were an appropriate forum as they often had a lack of diversity.

The students addressed this in their presentation, saying: “The first challenge relates to engaging youth from all backgrounds. We recommend using existing Apps for Good networks and structures, which are quite representative, with 60% of its network in challenging circumstances. We also recommend that this project be transplanted outside of the existing network to engage and collaborate with youth centres and clubs in the UK.”

The students also highlighted the need to focus on local solutions to climate challenges, saying: “Environmental issues have been found to be more meaningful when people connect them with their own lives and in their own communities.”


Putting recommendations into practice

Each group produced a report containing their recommendations for project partner, Apps for Good, and a video. Matt Guy said the challenge had been “purposefully difficult” and added: “​​It’s a genuine question. The best projects are the ones that are real. We haven’t solved this yet and it’s a real challenge so it’s just been brilliant to get your perspectives and insights.”

“If I was going to say something for everyone to work on (and that’s us as well), it’s diversity and inclusion. It’s so hard but it’s so important and it will be such a valuable skill to all of you. If you have good ideas and good ways of approaching that problem, that will take you a long way.”

Al Lawley-Powell, who leads the Sacha project, picked up on this point and praised the students for highlighting a range of young global climate activists. He said: “Yes, of course, I’ve heard of Greta Thunberg, but it was the first time I’ve heard about Vanessa Nakate [a young Ugandan climate justice activist]. How important do you think it is, when communicating during your programme to youth, particularly of all backgrounds that you choose a breadth of youth activists?”

One of the students, a black South African woman, said: “The effects of climate change affect the most vulnerable already, so [in some ways], it’s easy then to incentivize them to stand up. But they also need some kind of guidance. When the face is always white, or female, or this, it tends to discourage that ability. So it’s definitely important to use faces that are representative of the world.”

Written by David Lee. 


Find out more about the Students as change agents (SACHA) programme.

Read the final report of GROUP 1. 

Read the final report of GROUP 2. 

Read the final report of GROUP 3.

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