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Michelle Pieper has been struggling to make sustainability exciting for kids. The Hawaiian language teacher at Nanakuli Intermediate and High School says she tried talking about composting and climate change with her students, but they seemed indifferent to the idea of “saving Mother Earth.”

Pieper knew she needed to make sustainability more culturally relevant. The teens saw first-hand how sea level rise and extreme weather were affecting the Westside. But it wasn’t until their kumu, or teacher, taught it from the perspective of Wakea – known as Sky Father in Hawaiian culture – that she really reached these high schoolers.

“When we divert food and cardboard from the landfill, we’re eliminating greenhouse gasses, therefore protecting Wakea,” Pieper explained.

Climate Youth Scrappahz Union Michelle Pieper
Michelle Pieper shreds cardboard at “Sustainable Saturdays,” a recycling event she oversees with her student sustainability group, Scrappahz Union. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

Connecting more modern ideas of composting and carbon abatement to Hawaiian traditions and values made sense for her students. It seemed like a big jump, but when she started folding it into her curriculum, it clicked. She taught them the Hawaiian words for things like mulch and shovel. They went on excursions to see how farmers were taking care of their land, or malama aina.

“This is not science class but when you connect these dots as to why we’re doing this, they get it,” Pieper said.

A 2021 Pew Research Center survey found that Gen Z (those born after 1996) is more likely to be engaged with the issue of climate change compared to previous generations. They see it on social media more. They talk about climate action more. They are also doing more to get involved like volunteering and holding rallies.

“Young people have a really strong sense of justice,” said Andrea Rodgers, an attorney with Our Children’s Trust. “They know it’s not right to cause climate change that is destroying the lives of fellow humans and animals.”

Our Children’s Trust is a nonprofit public interest law firm that represents youth in climate and environmental lawsuits against state and local governments. She is co-counsel for the youth plaintiffs of Navahine vs. Department of Transportation, where 14 young people from Hawaii sued DOT last year for violating their right to a healthy environment.

“I was told that climate change is a big thing and that we all need to work towards making a change, but I was never really taught how to do that,” said Navahine Fukumitsu, lead plaintiff of the case, which continues Tuesday with a status conference in circuit court.

Developing ‘A Scientific Way Of Thinking’

So how are the “grownups” in their lives preparing them for a grim future of warming air temperatures, drought and sea level rise?

Teachers like Pieper are getting creative when posing the issue of climate change in their classrooms. Whether it’s factored into their school-wide values or implemented in a single lesson, Hawaii educators are passing on the value of taking care of the planet to the next generation.

Pieper launched a sustainability hui at her school in 2020 after seeing groups like North Shore Community Recycling and Maona Community Garden on social media. Having taught at Westside schools for the last 23 years, she wanted to see something like the Windward Zero Waste School Hui in her own neighborhood.

They started bokashi composting, a method of converting food waste into fertilizer. Students from Pieper’s class pick up post-lunch food scraps from the cafeteria every day and bring them to her classroom to store in sealed buckets. They sprinkle in bokashi — water, molasses, wheat bran and microorganisms — and leave it to ferment before adding it to their school’s garden and giving it out to neighboring farmers.

The group also hosts “Sustainable Saturdays” once a month to upcycle donated cardboard into biodegradable planters for farming. In exchange, they give out locally grown produce from those farmers to residents.

Climate Youth Scrappahz Union Cardboard Planter
Nanakuli High and Intermediate students roll corrugated cardboard into all-natural planters for their school’s garden and local farmers. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

These practices are a form of carbon abatement. The group weighs every food scrap bucket and cardboard donation to put into a carbon calculator and see how much carbon they are diverting from landfills. The students call themselves the “Scrappahz Union” because of the food and cardboard scraps they are recycling.

“Yeah, people think Westside people only want to scrap,” Pieper said. “We’re down for pound but we’re also down for the ground.”

Over in Honolulu, Stephanie Brown has been teaching science at Punahou School for seven years. She and her colleagues focus on the relevance science has to their students’ lives in the time of climate change.

“I don’t want students to just go away with ‘okay, plastics are the problem,’” Brown said. “Climate change is a bigger issue than just that.”

For her sixth grade class, they start with the understanding that climate change is science-based. The middle schoolers learn earth science first, like photosynthesis and the carbon cycle. Then they learn how humans impact that cycle in big ways.

When the kids hear about how fossil fuels are pumped out of the ground, burnt and sent into the atmosphere, that’s when the causes of climate change become clear and activates them to solve it. Brown encourages them to ask questions. Why are things the way they are? Where is the evidence?

“I didn’t necessarily want to teach my kids to become scientists,” Brown said. “I want them to have a scientific way of thinking.”

Their final project is based on biomimicry, where students have to think up solutions for climate impacts inspired by naturally occurring processes. One student proposed using a material similar to the skin of a basking shark to make self-cleaning dishes as a way to conserve water. Another student contemplated a beach clean-up robot that could catch plastics before they wash out to sea.

Punahou Sustainability Fair
Punahou’s annual Sustainability Fair showcases local organizations, student projects and a number of informative and engaging activities, like rolling genki balls for restoration efforts. Courtesy: Punahou School

Schoolwide, Punahou puts on an annual student-led Sustainability Fair. Since 2004, students have been able to promote their sustainability projects alongside state conservation agencies and nonprofit organizations.

“Children have amazing perspectives. We miss out when we don’t ask them,” said Debbie Millikan, the sustainability director at Punahou.

Sustainability is baked into the culture of the school. In the last couple of years, the administration launched their Path To Net Zero initiative with the goal to only consume as much energy as they produce. The school is a national leader in green educational building design, having installed solar panels across the campus, updated air conditioning and thermostat adjustments and switched to more energy efficient light bulbs.

With a background in science and education, Millikan helps to develop the school’s sustainability strategies and works with instructors to implement those goals across grade levels.

“I love working with teachers to help them identify areas in their curriculum that are critical at that particular age,” Millikan said.

It’s practical for Brown to be teaching what she does at an intermediate grade level, Millikan explains, because every grade builds upon the previous. In elementary, Punahou students work in their classroom garden and learn about composting and traditional Hawaiian farming. In high school, they learn how science informs policy and dissect which social and economical systems lead to issues like deforestation and fossil fuel usage.

Millikan asserts that this emphasis on sustainability is a way they can set their students up for success in a future that may seem bleak.

“We need to support them to be resilient and strong,” Millikan said. “We need them to be able to make the decisions that need to be made.”

Climate Youth Nanakuli Scrappahz Union
These Nanakuli High and Intermediate School students are in charge of the bokashi composting efforts at their school, turning their lunchtime leftovers into fertilizer. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

One of the members of the Scrappahz Union in Nanakuli hit on that responsibility when describing their own recycling efforts. The group won a $25,000 grant from American Savings Bank, taking first place in their 2022 Keiki Co. contest. With this money, they plan to buy more shredders and spread their knowledge to other Westside schools.

“Our kumu is trying to make leaders to help our community and step up,” said Tili Keohuhu, a junior in Pieper’s class.

No matter where they decide to go in the future, Pieper is assured that her haumana, or students, will be able to take these skills and values to their community and positively impact the land they are on. Even when some students find composting to be stinky or gross, she encourages them by explaining why they are doing it and what they are building toward: a more sustainable, thriving community.

“I tell them that they are already great,” Pieper said. “So there’s nothing left to do but be great.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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