• Teacher stands with his students in front of a green wall they've created for the Energy and Environmental Innovation program at the Career and Technology Centre in Calgary

    Adam Robb stands with Lauren Elliott (co-teacher) and a group of students (Faline Darling, Claire Storrow, Neha Pattar and Abby Storrowand) studying energy issues in Alberta – ready to attend the Gener8 Summit in Canmore, Alta. (Photo: Adam Robb)

Adam Robb has been a teacher for 15 years, and seven years ago he got involved with a unique program that takes a very hands-on learning approach. Robb teaches the Energy and Environmental Innovation program at the Career and Technology Centre, which is open to students from any high school in Calgary, Alta. Robb took some time out of his end-of-semester wrap up to share the highlights.

On what the program is all about

We do environmental studies as an optional class for high school students, and we also offer an environmental-focused social studies for Grades 11 and 12. Through this program, we really focus on resource issues. I would say it's like a hands-on version of your normal history or geography class.

We're fortunate that we get students from across the city who make the effort to come every day — some of them travel quite far— but it's such a unique environment that once a student gets in here and starts working, then we often get them coming back over and over again because they just feel so happy here. It’s that learning atmosphere — we have this huge lab space filled with living walls, fish tanks, horticulture space, aquaponics, a regular classroom space, and then a little herb garden that we run in our courtyard and our community garden that our class runs — so there's a multitude of spaces that we have for students to work in, which they seem to enjoy.

On how the program is structured

We have a cohort of kids for a semester, grades 10-12, and we mix them all together and give them a month of exploration. So, say, in September, it would be getting them to try horticulture or building something out of recycled materials. We also do a guest speaker series with speakers from all different environmental backgrounds — everything from wildlife conservation to green architecture. This huge exploration month typically culminates in a trip to Jasper National Park to initiate project planning and to give them a real sense of what we're working towards, which is to contribute in a positive way to protecting the environment but also to improving our communities. I think a big “aha” moment for most of them growing up here in Calgary is going out to the mountains, where we stand and look at the glaciers and the way that they've been receding. It's a tangible way of understanding climate change that helps us push forward and see the urgency of the work they're about to take on. At that point, they get to choose their own direction based on the experiences that they've had.

An outdoor "classroom" at the Palisades Education Centre in Jasper National Park run by the educators (pictured here is Sanne van der Ros) of Parks Canada. Robb and his students travel here at the start of each semester. (Photo: Adam Robb)

On the range of projects students pursue

Some of them might choose to do simple upcycling construction projects, building garden beds or art pieces out of upcycled materials. Others might focus on green building architecture. We just had a cohort of students who ran their own online conference in May called the Canadian Rockies Youth Summit and it was focused on helping youth across the province understand the conservation issues related to our Rocky Mountains. That was attended by a couple hundred students across the province. Our students ran the entire thing and it was honestly better than most adult conferences I've been to. They lined up all these experts from the science community and our local Indigenous communities, and it just turned out really well. Another totally different example is we opened our own thrift store in school this year. We have students who are really interested in the concept of fast fashion and the resurgence of thrift shopping, and how that could be a potential solution in urban environments for a lot of our issues. And so they opened the Crow's Nest, which is their own second-hand clothing store.

On what the students get out of the program

We focus on allowing them to design their own project without fear of what happens if it doesn't work. I think traditional school has that fear of failure attached to it which really limits their creativity. So if some of our projects don't work, it's about the learning along the way. And then the other big thing is that we succeed most when we work with as many people as we can within our community, and the more diverse group of people we work with the better and more long-lasting our projects tend to be. 

And then there’s the knowledge base. I'd say 90 per cent of our students, when they come into our program, they don't know the science of climate change or biodiversity. They don’t know the issues surrounding them unless they've watched some David Attenborough documentary, and that's probably the extent of it. So we're filling in those knowledge gaps, which I think are pretty important. We're doing so in a way where they're working on something and then they're able to articulate why this aquaponics system that they're building is going to contribute to helping alleviate climate change and our food security issues. They're able to talk about these things by actually doing, instead of just learning the concepts.

When a student first comes in, they're totally thrown off balance by being given some autonomy. They're expecting a little bit of spoon feeding and that doesn't happen, so then it takes an adjustment. In their first semester, projects are rarely fully successful, and so we try and encourage them at the beginning to take on smaller projects. They also get inspired by seeing what older students are doing and how they're accomplishing their goals. They really feed off each other, so by the time they come back for the second or third time into the program, they already know what they want to do. We see these incremental improvements and then all of a sudden, they're coming into our office and saying that they have started their own community garden or that they've taken a youth leadership role with Calgary police service.

Cohort of students at Pyramid Lake in Jasper National Park. (Photo: Adam Robb)

On how the program differs from a traditional classroom

I think our traditional school does a lot of things right, but it doesn't give you that real-life experience. A lot of kids understand that concept of like “be the change,” but I think the difficult part for a lot of kids is how do you actually get to work on something and pull people together. How hard is it to actually have this idea that I want to do — even just to put a new garden on some city boulevard? Well it takes a year's worth of approvals. So our program runs at a real-life pace. They get a sense of the challenges of actually accomplishing anything in a community or even in a province.

I would say that depth is more important than covering every curricular objective. If you look at a student walking out of a history class and how they feel about learning at the end of that, they've just learned a tiny bit about a whole bunch of subjects. Does that actually serve them well? I would argue that that only serves very few students. Whereas, when you take deep dives into larger topics and allow them to meet the people who are being affected by these topics, then they're allowed to actually create a project that's going to impact this actual issue. They walk away with a much broader perspective. Take the risk and let your students have the time and space to create and attempt to solve problems. It’s a bit chaotic at first, but they’ll gain so much out of the experience and they will grow as learners. I think that's the biggest difference between our program and the traditional way of running an education system.