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  • Writer's pictureElias Mbanze

Education for Emergencies: SDG4 Seminar 2022

This post is a review of the SDG4 seminar organised by GINTL in Jyväskylä on 23-24 November 2022. In this post, I highlight the main ideas that stood out to me personally during the discussion, and how useful they are for education. I also provide a reflection of the seminars I attended, and what I learned there.


Introduction


The SDG 4 seminar, organised by the University of Jyväskylä in collaboration with GINTL, explored the theme of sustainability in education, with a focus on the role of education in tackling global emergencies such as climate change, global pandemics (with a focus on the pandemic COVID -19) and wars (such as the current war between Russia and Ukraine). This seminar has been around for 10 years, but the focus on sustainability started when UN presented its sustainability goals in 2015. This year's seminar was organised on 23-24 November 2022.


In the welcome speech, it was pointed out that education has more power than bullets because it has the power to change the world. This is based on a quote from the late Nelson Mandela who said that education is the most powerful tool that can be used to change the world. This means that education can be used to address the challenges facing our world and that through education we can be better equipped to serve humanity. Better decisions are made through education, research and collaboration between stakeholders. Although the future may look bleak given the current circumstances, we can bring about all the necessary changes through our actions today. We were encouraged to be neither pessimistic nor optimistic, rather act responsibly. Being responsible means being conscious of your actions and considering the impact of the choices you make on your daily life and the world in general.


From education for emergencies to the emergence of education

People's perceptions of the world are greatly affected by the current global emergencies to which I referred in the introduction. These global emergencies have an impact on how education is imparted and how people interact with each other. The social distancing during the pandemic required people to remain isolated for extended periods of time and teaching and learning had to adopt a completely different paradigm. Online learning became the most prevalent form of learning, with most lessons delivered via Zoom, Teams or Google Meet. As a result, the element of social interaction in learning was severely compromised. Interaction, be it between students, students and teachers or teachers and their colleagues, greatly contributes in creating a learning environment. The absence of this aspect leads to a decline in performance as there can be a complete lack of interest in learning.


Emergencies, such as wars, significantly disrupt learning, as many people must relocate when they flee conflict zones. Learning institutes in conflict areas deviate from normal operations or stop operating altogether, bringing learning to an immediate halt. In this way, learning emergencies are created as result of refugee crises. Institutions in host countries usually must work hard to accommodate the rising numbers of refugees. As mentioned in the first seminar, feeling at home in the world has become a challenge for many. A world that is constantly bombarded by an avalanche of crises creates a hopeless situation where many people have nothing positive in sight but constant chaos. Ironically, chaos originally meant a turning point that calls for consideration and judgement. From this definition of chaos, it can be deduced that we are at a turning point that requires reflection and a reorientation of all our efforts towards a more sustainable world. The SDG4 seminar has thus been framed as a place to respond to the call for reflection on the changes that need to take place at this point.

It is not all doom and gloom, however, as resilience is built in times of challenge. School communities were especially central in demonstrating resilience during the pandemic, as they were at the forefront of creating coping strategies. It was further stated that resilience is entirely dependent on how a crisis is framed. Viewing a crisis as a learning opportunity and a starting point for possible transformation implies that resilience is about directing our activities towards sustainability, regardless of the challenges or the adversities. Resilience is thus a dynamic process for building a more sustainable future. Based on the resilience that school communities have demonstrated in times of crisis, it can be said that education has successfully 'emerged'. It is well equipped to cope with further crises and lead humanity towards a sustainable future.


Promoting Youth Climate Activism in Formal Education


The presentation by Rajala (2022) focused on youth climate activism in education. As climate change is one of the major crises currently facing humanity, steps need to be taken to address this issue. Ensuring that youth in school understand the importance of being part of action against climate change is an important step in mitigating the effects of climate change and ensuring overall preparedness for any changes that may occur in the natural environment.


The idea of a utopia was also mentioned by Rajala (2022). A utopia can be defined as a place of ideal perfection, especially in terms of laws, government and living conditions (Meriam-Webster, 2022). Since the days of the European conquest of the world, the idea of utopia became a futuristic concept. The initial utopia was the idea of the Garden of Eden, mentioned in the Bible as the ideal dwelling of humanity where everything was perfect. In the meantime, this idea has changed into a futuristic concept in which the world is even more perfect than it is today. The main driving ideology is that utopia can be achieved through human efforts. Thus, humanity is currently directing its efforts towards the achievement of this supposed future utopia. Certain historical events have been associated with the arrival of utopias. The fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, has been associated with the arrival of a utopia in which a united Germany would flourish. However, absolute utopias are not achievable, as our history as human beings has demonstrated. We can achieve industrialisation, economic growth and better living conditions, but all this is either at the expense of the environment or the exploitation of other societies or people.


It has been pointed out that utopias may also be ideas for change for or achievement. In the fight against climate change, we can imagine a utopia in which we enjoy the comforts of modernity whilst conserving the environment. However, our idea of a utopia can be either concrete or abstract. Rajala (2022) elaborated on the contrast between these concepts by stating that concrete utopias imply actual potential for change in existing activities, while abstract utopias are ideas or desires for change. In the fight against climate change, concrete steps must be taken to generate the required changes, rather than proposing potential changes. Furthermore, the presentation cited a study by Rajala that examines the evolution of utopian ideas over time. Key to this study is the so-called firefly metaphor, which states that one creates a firefly that gives light as long as one nurtures it. This can be linked the creation of utopias and the ideas associated with them. The ideas or utopias themselves can only serve their purpose as long as they are sustained through conscious effort. In the same manner, the fight against climate change can only achieve its aims when constant efforts are made to realise the envisioned changes.


In this light, efforts have been made to involve urban youth. They aim to raise awareness of climate change in high schools and have been implemented through climate change activism. The flagship of these efforts is the so-called "Bicycles on the Move" campaign, in which upper secondary students in schools around Helsinki work to reduce emissions. Another focus is learning about alternative forms of food production in response to climate change.


Report from subject-specific seminars


There were also subject specific sub-seminars organised as part of the main event, where participants could select which seminar they wanted to attend. I attended two of them. One was on problem-based STEAM learning for sustainability, the other on teaching science in a refugee camp. The seminar on problem-based STEAM learning for sustainability focused on the concept of sustainability, and how it can be integrated into teaching Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM). The key idea was to use concepts from STEAM to assist rural communities solve problems they face. Water scarcity is the main the issue in arid and semi-arid areas of the world. As an example, the so-called Warka Water Project was studied. The Warka Tower is a structure built from natural materials that can help capture water from fog and atmospheric pressure, which is then converted into drinking water for communities. It is an ingenious solution that applies principles from STEAM subjects. The design can be created using the simple mathematical software GeoGebra, which you can easily download from the Google App Shop.

I personally found the simplicity and ingenuity quite impressive. It shows that some problems currently facing humanity could be solved with the simplest of solutions. Although some issues may seem complicated, the solution could be as simple as the Warka Tower. However, it should be noted that an understanding of the STEAM issues is necessary to create such solutions. Currently, the tower is being successfully constructed in villages in north-eastern Ethiopia where there is a serious need for clean drinking water. The tower can capture 200 litres of drinking water from the atmosphere, which can then be used by the community. After the seminar, there was a practical session where the participants made a replica of the Warka water tower using plastic pipes and joints. Assembling the parts was quite easy and fun and showed how easy it is to build the actual structure.


In the seminar on teaching science in a refugee camp, the focus was on the use of everyday objects that can be easily accessed in a refugee camp. These include items such as dishwashing liquid, candles, lemons, matches, baking powder, salt, vinegar, etc. These items can be used to do simple science demonstrations. For example, in my group we were able to make invisible ink from lemon juice and demonstrate the neutralisation of an acid by a base with vinegar and baking soda. These simple experiments demonstrated that it is possible to teach science with common materials without the need for special laboratory equipment or chemical reagents that might be inaccessible in the conditions of a refugee camp or even a school in a remote area


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Bibliography:

Meriam-Webster Dictionary (2022). The definition of a utopia. Retrieved from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/utopia


Rajala, A. (2022, November 23 – 24). Promoting Youth Climate Activism in Formal Education [conference presentation]. SDG4 Seminar, University of Jyväskylä, Jyväskylä, Finland.

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Elias Mbanze is a student in the Master's in Changing Education programme at the Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki. He originates from the small town of Rundu in the north-eastern part of Namibia. He has a Bachelor's degree in Education from the University of Turku. Elias has been teaching Mathematics and Science at primary and secondary levels in Windhoek, Namibia since his graduation in 2019 until August 2021. He is passionate about education and is particularly dedicated to researching methods that can improve teaching and learning in STEM subjects.


Key Words:Sustainability, Global emergencies, Education

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