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Trending Topics in Education Podcast - EcoRise [Podcast]

Posted by Carrie Watkins on May 1, 2017 5:30:00 AM
Topics: custom course materials, podcast, ecoRise

Carrie Watkins: For the past eight years, EcoRise Youth Innovations has been helping students recognize they can make an impact on their environment. In this podcast with Jonathan Stott, deputy director with EcoRise Youth Innovations, we discuss the importance of introducing ecoliteracy and sustainability topics across the curriculum. Jonathan talks about giving students hands-on experience with projects that directly affect their schools and communities and giving students experience with potential career paths they may not have otherwise explored.

Trending Topics in Education Podcast - EcoRise [Podcast]


Welcome to the MBS Direct podcast where we talk with some of our partners who are doing interesting things with content and education. I'm Carrie Watkins, the senior digital consultant with MBS Direct. Today, we are talking with Jonathan Stott, the Deputy Director of EcoRise Youth Innovations. Thank you for joining us, Jonathan.

Jonathan Stott: Thanks so much for having me.

Carrie Watkins: EcoRise is a really interesting company. You've got a very specific mission that you guys are on. Can you tell me a little bit about EcoRise and what you're doing around sustainability?

Jonathan Stott: Sure. Our mission is to inspire a new generation of green leadership, and so what we're doing is really working with students by connecting with teachers globally at schools from Austin to Boston basically to have their students challenged to design a more sustainable world. What that means for us is students engaging with environmental challenges in waste and water and energy and food coming up ultimately with open-ended capstone projects that make a significant impact in their community, on their campus, in one of those areas. When we work with schools, we provide a mix of professional development. We provide a standards-aligned sustainability curriculum that's heavy on design process as well. Then, we ultimately facilitate connections between students and mentors. As they're coming up with these capstone projects, they're really engaging with an authentic audience and also getting real experts to lend their suggestions and feedback as students go through that design process and create those projects.

Carrie Watkins: Course packs have been around for a long time. I think most people are familiar with the idea, but obviously the technology that's available now has allowed us to do a lot of different things and be more specific to the needs of the student these days. How long has Skyepack been doing this?

Jonathan Stott: We will be five years old in a couple of months. We've been doing this for not a long time as it pertains to the education industry, but we've been doing it long enough to really understand the needs of students and the needs of faculty members. Many of us on the team, myself included, have taught at the college level before, so we have that hands-on experience and can really understand from a professor's perspective what their needs are and also what students like and expect to see in college courses today.

Carrie Watkins: We've talked about the customization and the growing desire for faculty to have a truly aligned content to the learning objectives of their course, and also the growth in the technology. What problem is Skyepack trying to solve, and has that changed over the five years that you guys have been in the industry?

Brady Kalb: Yeah, exactly. We have a very comprehensive K-12 sustainability curriculum. It's called Sustainable Intelligence. It builds students ecoliteracy across seven distinct eco themes. That's waste, energy, water, food, transportation, air quality, and public spaces. Really that get students thinking about the campus from the perspective of energy or water, and starts getting them engaged with those issues. Then, we also layer in a separate design studio curriculum. It takes students through the creative problem solving process, so that they can come up with a kind of open-ended project of impact. That's what we call a capstone project. It's a very much scaffold. It's available in two different languages right now, English and Spanish. It allows a school to do sustainability all the way from kindergarten through 12th grade. It's very intentionally built with specific learning modalities in mind, so students are progressing through their knowledge over time and cultivating what we call their sustainable intelligence.

Carrie Watkins: You mentioned a term just a minute ago, ecoliteracy. I know different types of literacies are really at the forefront of a lot of different conversations. What do you mean ecoliteracy?

Jonathan Stott: To me, it's two things. One, it's an awareness of how you as a person are using the resources around you. Take water, for example, how am I engaging on a daily basis with water? It's also understanding the relationship of those resources and how they can impact your ability as an individual to thrive on the planet. It's having that connection, that larger connection I think, with awareness of those different eco areas for us. Then to me, there's an action component too. It's not just that I'm aware of the water footprint on my campus, how much water we're using, when I go home how much water I'm using, but then that awareness spurs action, right? It encourages students to start thinking critically about their own choices and saying, "Well, can I change my specific behaviors when I go home? What can I do? How can I educate my family to really look at our water bill and make a difference?"

We have what we call personal water audit. It kicks that whole process off for our students. Then, they come back to the campus and they share that with their class and their teacher. That's a precursor to a larger campus water audit where students are actually going through the campus and looking at their utility bills. Doing some prevention calculations in the bathroom, in the cafeteria, looking at where the campus is using water and how they can reduce that. Ultimately, the idea there is that students then do something with the data that they collect. They're actually saying, "Okay. Well now, I've seen what we're doing. I've seen areas that we're really doing well in, but I'm also seeing areas where we can improve as a community. What can we do?" That's when students create those large kind of signature projects. We had a student put in aerators and get a grant for an aerator project at Austin High School, and it resulted in significant environmental savings. A really simple project but a significant savings for that campus.

Carrie Watkins: Obviously, there's some alignment in the sciences, biology, environmental science, but how are you seeing faculty use your curriculum cross-curricularly?

Jonathan Stott: Well, I have a professional development module for schools that are doing PBL, which really is a framework to help teams of teachers, inter-disciplinary teams come together and create an authentic project which incorporates our approaches. It incorporates, perhaps, our eco audit and our grants program because that's a really great authentic project for those kinds of things. That's one way to do it. All of our sustainable intelligence lessons will include specific suggestions for making a lesson cross-disciplinary, and they'll be an ELA extension, for example. Often, there's even an artist extension as well. That's another way. Our lessons are written. While they're a great fit for science teachers, they're definitely aligned to NGSS science standards. They're a great fit for AP Environmental Science teachers in high school, Environmental Systems. We've got a separate curriculum that's just for biology, chemistry and physics teachers, but with all that said, I think about 30% of our teachers are not science teachers and are using the curriculum in math classes and in ELA classes and so forth.

Carrie Watkins: How long has EcoRise been doing this?

Jonathan Stott: We're still pretty young. We've been around for about eight years now. When I joined EcoRise four years ago, we served about seven schools, literally seven schools in east Austin which is one of the more challenging communities or high-risk communities in Austin. The demand for our programming was well beyond our capacity to go into schools and provide it. I'm a former teacher. We just couldn't go out to the school and actually do the facilitation of this programming. We transitioned to a train-the-teacher model about four years ago. That allowed us to, obviously, rapidly expand to 215 schools today where we're able to provide that professional development either through face-to-face facilitated training, and we do that a bunch in the northeast and also across the state of Texas, but also through an online ... We have moved to, this year, online e-training for our teachers and it's going really well, which allows us to serve schools from Wisconsin to Florida. We actually just got a school from Kenya that was trained and is up and running around a week and a half ago. That's been the evolution for us is helping ...

Well, I guess the first thing is getting schools to go access our stuff and really implement at a high level using online learning, but the next step for us is actually facilitating bridging between different communities, teachers and students from Mexico City to New York City, so that students who are working on a Monarch project in Austin can talk to students who are in Mexico and learn about migration, for example. We're just trying to find ways to do that and leverage technology to help those kinds of things.

Carrie Watkins: Having been doing this for eight years, you've probably seen a lot of schools really grow with this curriculum. What are some of the results that you've seen from schools that have adopted this?

Jonathan Stott: The results have been really phenomenal. I will say that for us, we develop deep relationships with the schools that we serve. We talk to our teachers and say, "In the first year, let's not bite off more than we can chew. Let's take this step by step." Three, four years in, you find that schools are adopting this really as a school-wide approach to greening their curriculum, and the results are phenomenal. Because you get teachers to internalize the program, ultimately you get students who internalize this.

What I really like is some of our schools do these things that are like legacy projects. Elementary schools might do it that last year in elementary, say fifth grade for example, or a middle school might do it as an eighth grade year. It's the challenge to students is, "What is your legacy for our campus? What are you going to leave as your footprint here on our campus?" This is where students go out and through our eco-audit program, our eco-audit curriculum and what we call our Student Innovation Fund, this is a national pot of funds that we are able to award. They're basically micro-grants, small amounts of dollars, $500 or less generally, to student-designed sustainability projects. It allows students to really be in the driver's seat of actually coming up with a project, writing a grant proposal or submitting a video submission, and getting funds during the academic year to then go out and implement that project on campus.

That's what we see. Our schools that are with us for years, they really internalize this and it's a big part of their campus culture. It's having students go through this eco-audit and come up with those projects and ultimately, bring funds back to the school for the student-designed projects. It could be a three-bay composting system. We had a school do an energy audit and create energy solar charging stations last year. I think that's a really great experience because the students have incredible ownership over their work, because the students are connecting with real professionals and showcasing their work back to real authentic audiences. They're actually bringing money back to their campus for these projects.

The coolest thing is when you aggregate all these projects nationally at the end of the year, we see that they actually have, and not only a significant environmental benefit to the districts they're in, so we're able to say, "Okay. What are the energy reduction after all the energy projects across our sites?" They also have an immediate cost savings benefit to the schools and to the districts, which is really cool because students can then take that back to their superintendent, take that back to the their head of school and say, "I, with the support of my teacher and classmates, have single-handedly reduced our carbon footprint and reduced our energy consumption and whatnot."

Carrie Watkins: Obviously, the primary issue that you guys work around is the sustainability element. When EcoRise was first getting founded, what problem were you trying to solve and has that changed over the last eight years?

Jonathan Stott: We're really crediting response to, I think two major linked crises. Our planetary crisis, which is getting more apparent each year, and our education crisis, where you have massive achievement gaps both in the U.S. and abroad. I come from a background in public education and urban education and have seen a couple of different schools do this different ways, but ultimately, you've got a growing group of students who are going to school. It's that privilege of rote memorization and test taking and a whole onslaught of interesting assessments, really privileged, not overly critical thinking authentic projects. Our program is really getting at both these things. It's building ecoliteracy. It's getting students thinking about the world around them. It's supporting them and actually engaging with their community and making real change and seeing themselves as leaders, empowered leaders.

Students, one thing that we try to do is facilitate connections to green professionals because it's a growing career field that will continue to be so. Students are getting introduced to green sustainable jobs and many of them are then excited to pursue careers in that direction. We're really, I think, really approaching both the environmental crisis and the education crisis simultaneously. I think our program is really a ... I think the skepticism of science, the skepticism of experts, the skepticism of real news is deeply concerning. I think you need to educate students who can take a critical look at sources and a critical look at the world around them, and I think we're doing that.

I like this example of our public spaces eco theme. That's not a hard science eco theme, the alignment to some of the hard science centers less of that obviously, but what's really interesting is you get students engaged with issues in public space, and they start looking at their courtyards or the small spaces if they're a more urban environment on their campus, and they start saying, "How are we using these spaces? How are they creating or not creating a sense of community?" Especially at our schools that are more economically disadvantaged. You have students for the first time learning about something like landscape design and landscape architecture, which in cities like you got New York City and Austin, you got rapidly growing cities where landscape design, landscape architecture and public space design is a growing field. It will continue to be so.

Students, for the first time, are learning about this as a potential career opportunity. Just because they go through the process of doing a public space audit and doing a ... We were at a school in Texas where they did a courtyard revitalization project and put in a permaculture installation in that courtyard. A lot of the students, after going through that project and working with landscape designers, are like, "That's what I want to do." One of them actually got a scholarship that was offered by Latinos in Architecture in Austin. They had offered a scholarship to a student to then go out and study that for college. We see a sustainability career field. It's a very broad, growing field. We definitely want to have students engaged and interested in it.

Carrie Watkins: We've talked about experiential learning, project-based design, and then of course the whole sustainability focus as well. What do you think is the most interesting thing happening in education right now?

Jonathan Stott: I think what's happening with e-learning, and the integration of technology in a cloud structure is super interesting. When I was teaching, and when I was working in secondary schools, that point ... This is about six years ago. We were trying to figure out what was happening with technology and I don't think we were fully leveraging it. I guess you almost saw it potentially as a threat to soon to being on point in the classroom. All of a sudden we're saying, "Wait a second. How can we now use technology to engage students, to get them engaged with these projects?" Looking at things like e-portfolios and having students design, we were an EL school, so we did a lot with passage portfolios. Now, you can have students actually creating using technology, using their smartphones to build their portfolios in real time. I think that's pretty exciting.

One thing that we're doing organizationally is we're partnering with a for profit company, we're a nonprofit company, but we're partnering with a for profit company that facilitates basically video conferencing between green and STEM professionals and students and teachers. It's a pretty neat tool. It's called Neppers. Then, it lets students interact in real time with a STEM professional, with a soil scientist for example, and have a real conversation and actually they can take out their phones and they can be asking questions with their phones. I don't know. I think there's a lot of interesting things happening around educational technology. I think schools and teachers need to see it as, "How can we take advantage of this and get students engaged at a higher level using technology in the classroom?"

From an organizational standpoint, one other thing I'll say is that we're doing a lot with e-learning in our professional development, taking our design studio training which we've always done face to face. It's a hands-on engaged process where teachers are going through from ideation to prototyping. They're coming up with their final project and sharing it over four, five hours in person trying to flip that and say, "Okay, how can you do that online?" Because it's not environmentally friendly for us to be flying to 17 places in a calendar year. How can we bring together educators in six different state simultaneously for a hands-on design challenge, like an immersive experience in going through the design challenge process? We're working hard at taking our current professional development and making it work in the e-learning space.

Carrie Watkins:  Well, besides talking with the MBS Direct account manager, which any partner school that's interested more than welcome to reach out to your account manager to learn more about EcoRise. We've got some great information. How else can schools learn more about EcoRise and your curriculum and your professional development?

Jonathan Stott: Probably the best way is just going to our website. It's You'll have links to all of our different curriculum suites that we offer to our schools. There'll be information on our professional development, and you can access all of that actually through our e-store there on We also have a Facebook community, EcoRise Youth on Facebook is a great place to see what we're up to. Then, we have a number of internal communities for our teachers and for our schools. Once our schools join, we're able to bring them into internal social media communities, which is pretty cool too. That's probably the best way.

Carrie Watkins: Well, thank you very much for your time, Jonathan. It was great learning more about EcoRise.

Jonathan Stott: Thanks so much, Carrie.

Carrie Watkins: Hey, guys. Thanks for listening. For more information on any of the topics discussed in this podcast or any other questions you have about digital content options, contact your account manager or reach out to me, Carrie Watkins, Senior Digital Consultant on Twitter @carriejwatkins.

For more information on any of the topics discussed in this podcast or any other questions you have about digital content options, contact your account manager or you can reach out to me, Carrie Watkins, senior digital consultant, on Twitter @CarrieJWatkins.

About Carrie Watkins

Carrie is a former digital consultant for MBS Direct, who specialized in traveling around the country to learn about new products and services MBS Direct can provide to partner schools and bringing those ideas back into the office to work on with the digital solutions team.

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