The World’s Biggest Problem

(This post is the second part of a two-part series on problem-based learning. To see the earlier post, click HERE.)

As the previous post illustrates, students in the Burlington City & Lake Semester don’t shy away from complex problems. They lean in, and grapple with layers of complexity. They engage directly in issues without easy answers. In other words, they face the world head-on. So why not take on the world’s biggest problem? 

When asked how often they had discussed the global climate crisis in their dozen years in public school, some students said “a few times,” but many said never. A few students said that they had learned about specific atmospheric reactions during their Chemistry class, but otherwise, they hadn’t talked about it at all. How can we explain this silence, especially given that this issue will impact every living thing on the planet–in these students’ lifetimes? With 97% of global scientists in agreement, the existence of this issue is incontrovertible. But it is not like other problems. If bringing equity to our local food system was complicated, if reenvisioning the downtown mall was complicated, then this challenge is truly next-level. 

A problem that is both local and global requires both a local and a global response, and BCL students were ready. Our initial study of the climate crisis as a systems problem–with inputs, outputs, feedback loops, and systems-limits–coincided with the first Global Climate Strike. Students explored the origins of the protests, the growing power of youth activism, and the competing values cross-cutting the movement. Given how complex the issue is, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that there were a mix of reactions and reflections. Our discussions before and after the event didn’t shy away from controversial questions–including whether the voices at the event were inclusive and equitable, and whether street protest itself is a viable lever for social change. With all of these questions swirling, the students who attended the Climate Strike in Burlington took on the role of anthropologist, journalist, artist, or participant. 

Nearly 3,000 people attended the Burlington rally–including more than 200 from BHS.
Jonny uses participant-observation to explore the crowd pulsing around him.

I have never been to a real strike like that one, so it was definitely a new experience for me, as a student it was interesting, I felt a little held back from saying crazy things. As a citizen it makes me hopeful and happy to see all those people (especially young) fighting for the future of our planet.

  • Jensen

Yes, students should engage in these issues because these are global problems that are going to be inherited by us when our current world leaders and activists “retire” so to say. The climate crisis, in particular, is a perfect example of an issue that the youth should be engaged in because our current leadership is not being proactive enough, and while adults now may not see as direct of implications in their lifetime, we will. 

  • Kofi

Of course students should engage with issues like the climate crisis, because students have younger minds. There’s just more thinking involved if the youth join with the elders.

  • Rhiannon

It was incredibly fortuitous that these local events coincided with a gathering right here in Burlington that was global in scale. Burlington has been designated by the United Nations University as a “Regional Center of Expertise in Education for Sustainable Development” [RCE]. This links our city with nearly 180 cities and regions around the globe who are dedicated to this work. From 9/22-9/25, the Greater Burlington Sustainability Education Network [GBSEN] convened the RCE Americas Meeting–a multi-day event that welcomed 37 delegates from across the hemisphere. The Americas meeting “alternates between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, with the previous three meetings taking places in Posadas, Misiones, Argentina; Vancouver, BC, Canada; and Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil” []. The theme of this year’s meeting was “Human Health and the Environment,” and many events were focused on the interdependence of ecosystem and human thriving. 

In preparation for our collaboration with the RCE Americas group, BCL students studied the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs]. These are interdependent, and provide broad goals, outcomes, and targets that are relevant worldwide. With the help of Jen Cirillo and Aimee Arandia Østensen from Shelburne Farms, students prioritized the SDGs, and generated open-ended questions inspired by the goals’ themes.

Students use the view from Battery Park to inspire their prioritization of the SDGs.
24 BCL representatives. 17 Goals.

BCL students then brought these questions to the RCE Americas Meeting, and convened five groups that included delegates and local professionals. Students facilitated these conversations, engaging with participants in expansive, challenging dialogue. 

It was remarkable how quickly our short time together seemed to fly by. If the success of an experience is measured by engagement, then this was truly exceptional.  

This conference was incredibly special because it gave us a genuine opportunity to witness and participate in a collaborative meeting to attempt to solve real-world problems. Also, it gave us students a moment to appreciate how adults are learning to value our opinions more and more. 

  • Kofi

I think learning about long term problems with long term impact (or maybe not so long) is important for younger people who will live with the effects of these problems.

  • Juan

The RCE Meeting was eye-opening. I have never worked with adults in this way and it definitely was a little uncomfortable to start but then once it opened up it allowed us to have conversations with these adults as adults. I felt like I was part of the discussion and I have never had that moment before.

  • Liliana
Joris, a BCL student, discusses the future of the Waterfront with UVM Emeritus Professor, Tom Hudspeth. (Brian Jenkins, Photo)
The questions students generated and the conversations they facilitated opened up powerful dialogue across generations, languages, and cultural boundaries.
Jensen, facilitating a conversation about how to make education more place-based and more global. 
Lucie, Joris, and Rotha help delegates explore the food system–and a world without hunger. (Brian Jenkins, Photo)
Liliana engages delegates in a discussion about gender, power, and corporate responsibility. (Brian Jenkins, Photo)
Delegates from Argentina and Puerto Rico agree that talking about food is truly universal. (Brian Jenkins, Photo)
The 2019 U.N. RCE Americas group — with BCL students!

Working with the visitors from across the Americas was a really interesting experience that I actually enjoyed. It was such an enjoyable feeling to have the older generation listen to us without making it seem like we were “just kids” or “didn’t know what we were saying”. I felt empowered by having my voice heard and my ideas listened to.

  • Rubie

I found that talking with these members and delegates from other places was empowering for me as a student. Having conversations with adults who wanted to hear from me was surprising. They made me feel like my voice was important to the community and my future. They also made me feel smart when a lot of times in school I don’t. This is where I think the education system is broken. I am often told I am wrong, and over time I learned to think of myself as not smart in certain subjects… This degrades me and makes me unmotivated to learn, because I have grown up with a mindset that I am not. At the RCE event, I felt more comfortable having discussions and being able to articulate my thoughts. Overall, this experience was inspiring and couldn’t have happened in a school setting. 

  • Galen


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