Person holding a plant as part of environmental science study

Changing Science Education to Meet the Sustainable Development Goals

Science education can prepare students to not only face the world’s future challenges but also find solutions. Unfortunately, many science teachers fail to show students how to apply science to real-world problems, according to William C. Kyle Jr., professor of science education at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. 

In Kyle’s article, Expanding our views of science education to address sustainable development, empowerment, and social transformation published January 2020, he argues that educators should teach students how science can help humanity meet the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that the United Nations General Assembly set in 2015. The UN General Assembly announced these goals in their resolution, Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and claimed it would accomplish them by 2030.

The Sustainable Development Goals:

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development

Teacher teaching students about environmental science

Kyle argues that achieving these goals greatly depends on student involvement.

“Youth are not mere beneficiaries of the 2030 Agenda, rather they have a critical role in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals,” Kyle said.

Adolescents between 10 to 24 years old makeup about 24% (1.8 billion) of the global population, accordion to the Global Youth Development Index and Report 2016. Of that 1.8 billion youth, 90% live in underdeveloped countries, according to the United Nations Population Fund. These young people are seeing global problems like poverty and violence firsthand, which means their insight could add value to scientific research. For them to contribute to the field of science, however, teachers must first show them how.

“All too often, science educators merely focus upon fostering awareness and concern for global challenges,” Kyle said. “Such an orientation falls short of the education discourse that ought to be oriented toward addressing the goals, aspirations, desires, and needs of youth.”

Kyle gives two reasons why science teachers do not teach students how to solve real-world problems: 1) the history of science education and 2) the emotional sensitivity surrounding environmental issues.

History of Science Education

Before the 1960s, logical empiricists dominated the philosophy of science. They only valued knowledge gained by direct observation and logical reasoning and dismissed everything else, Kyle said. Because of their influence, science teachers focused on abstract concepts and principles without connecting them to real life. They also taught students about past scientific discoveries that scholars had already accepted as truth but didn’t mention present-day experiments.

As a result of this approach to science education, most people don’t make the connection between science and everyday life, Kyle argues. They don’t see how it impacts socio-economic issues and what scientists choose to study.

Future generations will also see science as irrelevant unless teachers turn away from the logical empiricism that we still see today, Kyle explained.

“In the typical science classroom, students get bombarded with facts, vocabulary, laboratory experiments but don’t get the opportunity to see how their daily choices impact the environment,” Kyle said.

The Stigma of Environmental Science

Environmental science and education started in the 1960s as people became aware of and concerned about the planet. Politics and media coverage, however, have turned it into a hot-button topic for many people.

“Environmental education is often avoided in school-based settings due to negative emotions and the overwhelming sense of hopelessness students and educators often feel as a result of immersing into such issues,” Kyle said.

As a result, students remain ignorant of the consequences of climate change, pollution, and other issues. They will not know how to address these problems in the future because they didn’t learn how in school.

students working together on a projectWhy Science Education Should Align with the Sustainable Development Goals

One of the greatest challenges humanity faces is providing resources for the world’s ever-growing population. According to Kyle, the current global population uses resources 40% faster than the planet can regenerate in a year. If this rate continues into the mid-2030s, it will take Earth twice as long to regenerate the same amount of resources. 

“Our ability to provide life’s essentials, for an ever-expanding human population and within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems, will require major advances in science and technology and a scientifically literate citizenry,” Kyle said.

So why hasn’t science education evolved to align with the 2030 Agenda goals? According to Kyle, if we want children to grow up to be responsible citizens who take action and help make this world sustainable for future generations, then we need to teach them about these problems and what they can do to address them using scientific principles.

“Learners ought to be afforded the opportunity to exercise creativity, debate, and dissent in the process of learning science,” Kyle said. “Through experiencing such an education in science, youth may acquire important insights into social change, systems change, citizenship, and democracy that many education systems are currently failing to provide.”

Science will become more meaningful to students as they learn how to critically think about global issues and use their imaginations to come up with solutions. They will come to class eager to participate and enjoy working on assignments and projects.

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