Our school is a two-form entry primary in Coventry. We are housed in a beautiful two storey Victorian building, located at the end of a busy high street, just over a mile from the city centre.
We believe passionately that our children can be the problem solvers and change makers for a sustainable future and are always looking to develop learning experiences that enable them to connect with climate change in a meaningful way. However, although our location presents us with some fantastic opportunities to engage with local climate issues, it also provides some unique challenges!
One of the biggest challenges we face led us to apply for funding to be part of the Tomorrow’s climate scientist programme. We have very little space to develop purposeful living green areas that can be used to support STEM learning. Our outdoor space consists of one small playground, with no grass, that is shared between 408 pupils and is timetabled to the eighth degree for playtimes and P.E; our classrooms are small and full! Finding spaces for children to engage hands on with local climate issues through learning with and about plants on a regular basis was the starting point for devising our project.
We had successfully worked with the Royal Society on an environmental project four years ago and had experienced the power and long-term influence of working with their expertise and their support in connecting with a STEM partner. As such, we were very keen to collaborate with them on this challenge and were delighted to have our proposal accepted.
Our STEM partner
Our STEM partner is Dr Rokhshid Ghaziani. Rokhshid is a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and a lecturer in Architecture at De Montford University. Her research and teaching combine interests in educational spaces, design process, participation and architecture education. Her research and passion is focused on designing “biophilic” school buildings and we are learning a lot.
Biophilic design is a concept used within the building industry to increase occupant connectivity to the natural environment through the use of direct nature, indirect nature, and space and place conditions.
For this project we are working with Dr Ghaziani to think about practical ideas that will enable us to create STEM investigations involving growing plants that focus on climate change within children’s local environment and everyday lives. Alongside developing curriculum links, we are also interested in the impact plants have on children’s wellbeing. During our initial research, we found a study from Putney High School that demonstrated the positive impact that plants in classrooms were having on older children’s wellbeing and exam results. We were eager to see if we could replicate these findings in our own school with children of a younger age.
With Dr Ghaziani’s support, we devised a plan to utilise our classroom and playground walls and turn them into living walls, full of plants. These are spaces that we have not previously considered when thinking about STEM learning! The hypothesis is that the living walls will create green spaces that children can use to investigate and collect data to measure the impact plants have on their physical environment, including air quality, and on their mental wellbeing.
The funding provided by the project has been crucial. Alongside being able to purchase and fix living wall containers to walls and fill them with plants, we have been able to fund the purchase of scientific measuring equipment. These include CO2 monitors, soil temperature monitors and film equipment. Children and staff have found that subtle differences in classroom environments e.g. shade, wind direction, create big differences in how different plants thrive and we have had to do some replanting!
What are we trying to find out?
- Does bringing a living wall into the classroom provide the resource and opportunity for children and teachers to meaningfully connect and learn with about nature?
- Do the walls enable us to build subject knowledge and STEM learning opportunities that will enable children to engage with learning about the climate and sustainable living?
- What can we learn about living conditions to sustain plant life, in our school and how can our learning spaces be adapted to include nature?
- Can our children and teachers use STEM projects to make connections to the big ideas - climate change, sustainability, identity, innovation – all concepts that we are working on threading throughout our curriculum as we continue to develop it.
- Do living walls support well-being through providing opportunities for children to interact with nature within their learning space?
Although still a work in progress, our Tomorrow's climate scientists project is having an impact on our whole school community and we couldn’t be happier! Due to all things Covid, our project is still ongoing, and children are still collecting and analysing data. Already, the cohorts involved are gaining so much knowledge of plants and their impact on human environments and are connecting what they are learning with wider climate issues.
For staff, the project is providing a starting point for reflection and connection with nature that is enabling them to learn and take ownership of this key curriculum area. The project is helping develop subject knowledge and a deeper understanding of how teachers can take ownership of and use research questions within our STEM curriculum. Lively discussions have been taking place in the staffroom and green learning walls and spaces are popping up all over school. The project is proving to be a very powerful CPD tool - even the office staff are transforming their working space.
As a result of taking part in this project one of our teachers has undertaken a qualification in “Nature Connectedness” with Nottingham University and is using her newfound knowledge of all things green to inspire her colleagues. We have children who are confidently discussing climate change with our local community. Our local MP was wowed by the knowledge and passion of our children on a recent visit to school. We have children growing their own living walls at home and educating their parents in the positive impact plants can have on home health and wellbeing!
Through Royal Society and STEM partner led events we have had many opportunities to meet and collaborate with other educationalists and professionals. We have been inspired by the diverse range of projects being undertaken by schools around the UK and will be able to adapt some of these ideas into our own curriculum. We have been invited to take part in academic symposiums, attended by forward thinking architects from around the world. We have found out about their ground-breaking work in biophilic design and have been able to share our own ideas from an education perspective. From this we have developed new partnerships, including working with RIBA and our project is going to form a chapter in an academic book to be published next year.
Using the project to create a legacy
As with our previous project, a key element for committing to the time needed to be involved is to consider how we can embed our findings into our long-term vision. We want it to be more than a one-off opportunity for one cohort of children – we want it to enable change and be sustainable.
Our school vision “to enable children to become active and innovative local and global citizens” may sound very grand, but it is a statement that we continually return to when we are planning learning for our children and the Tomorrow's climate scientists project is helping us put our vision into practise.
We are already using what we have learnt to extend our climate curriculum developments into other year groups and through the project have been able to forge connections with local environmental groups which will support us moving forward.
The Royal Society are very hands on in supporting their project schools and we would highly recommend applying and becoming involved.