A new climate for design education? Sylvia Knight in conversation with school Head of Tech, Michael Noonan

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Through her work with the Royal Meteorological Society, Sylvia Knight has discovered a hunger for revised climate teaching within the secondary curriculum. She introduces the key issues facing schools and students today, and turns to tech teacher Michael Noonan for his thoughts from the frontline of teaching design and technology (D&T).

At the Royal Meteorological Society (RMetS) we think that every student should leave school with the basic climate literacy that enables them to:

  1. Engage with messages put forward by the media or politicians.
  2. Make informed decisions about their own opportunities and responsibilities.
  3. Become equipped with the knowledge and skills required for the green jobs of the future.

This vision is very much in line with the DfE Sustainability and Climate Change strategy (2022), which specifically states that all young people should be prepared for a world impacted by climate change through learning and practical experience.  

We’ve seen high awareness and concern amongst young people about climate change and broader environmental issues, as well as repeated calls from them – and others – for schools to teach more in this area. Research conducted around school leavers for the RMetS in 2022 found that the majority of students did recognise that they had been taught about climate change in the previous year. Despite this, however, their ability to correctly answer basic questions on the subject was very poor.  

With that in mind, the issues for the sector are ‘Where is climate change currently being taught?’ and ‘Where are the opportunities for teachers to demonstrate to students that what they are learning is relevant to their understanding of climate change?’ In addition, how do schools strengthen their ability to communicate that understanding, their anxieties, and make ‘green’ their lives and careers? 

With these issues as our basis, we spoke to Michael Noonan, Head of Technology at Queen Elizabeth’s School in Barnett, to hear the view from his work at secondary level. 

Sylvia Knight (SK) – With the young people you teach, do you think there is awareness that the skills they are learning in school could be very relevant to green careers – whether that’s changes to existing careers as we try to reach net zero or adapt to the climate as it changes, or new careers that will emerge with new, green technologies?

Michael Noonan (MN) – I would say there is, and I believe ultimately it us up to us as teachers to stay informed about the skills which are required in green careers and promote the acquisition of these skills in our subject. An example of this could be a life-cycle assessment (LCA) activity which a student undertakes as part of an in-depth product analysis, looking beyond the product itself and considering how it has been environmentally impactful from cradle to grave. This opens opportunities to discuss designer responsibility to design through a circular/sustainable approach, and therefore consider how material will be disposed of, or re-used, after the product has run its course. 

In contextualising the ‘why’ of the activity, a D&T teacher can highlight the fact that engineers, project managers or designers will regularly undertake activities of this sort as part of the feasibility testing of any work before they undertake it. A similar skillset and mindset of analysis from this small task could be applicable to a range of products, and has the potential to go far beyond the specific product students are looking at during the activity. 

SK – In recent research, which looked at all the GCSE specifications, we highlighted that there are many, many opportunities to embed climate change education within the current specifications. I think our expert reviewers were quite surprised by how many explicit links there were already in the D&T specifications; for example through analysis of the LCA of products, carbon footprints, new and emerging technologies, energy generation and storage. They were also surprised at how many opportunities there were for further links to be made. 

Does this tie in with your experience? Do you think young people are already learning a reasonable amount about climate change and broader sustainability issues in D&T?

MN – Absolutely, yes. An activity like the one above, or even an LCA re-design project where students change the design, materials or technologies used to create a product on the market, can be highly beneficial to their learning. 

Through a training session with the Prince’s Teaching Institute (PTI) and the Design & Technology Association (D&TA), I’ve found some great resources – such as the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s guidance on promoting a circular-economy approach to the design of products; effectively ‘closing the loop’ by which certain products end up in landfill, and the valuable resources which make them up are wasted.  

In my experience, teaching these approaches is best done when students can engage practically; taking an existing product (likely to be from a handling collection – we use decommissioned power tools), analysing its current LCA, identifying points in the analysis which are fundamentally flawed/impactful, and suggesting ways in which a potential change for the better can be made. It was through preparing for this sort of activity, and exploring other resources, that I discovered companies here in our locality like Batch.Works, a circular manufacture business that we intend to visit with our A Level cohort in the Autumn term as a case study in circular manufacturing.

I do think that more can done to keep teachers informed about cutting edge developments in climate specific issues in design. Having undertaken an October visit to Batch.Works, we were amazed at their circular manufacture approach of effectively converting waste streams back to useable raw material for 3D printing. Also highlighted on the trip was the notion of “urban mining”, wherein companies who deal with design and manufacture can source materials from within their own urban area through re-using or repurposing, therefore drastically reducing the need for extraction and transportation, and reducing the embodied energy and carbon of the material. What is unfortunate is that the subject specifications cannot hope to keep pace with the developments and innovations which are occurring in climate specific design, but perhaps something can be done about this. 

Regular opportunities for schools to link in with climate-conscious companies like Batch.Works, to meet with innovators in the sector and even perform case studies of larger companies (for example Patagonia, who operate a free repair or recycle service on all their clothing) could allow students to see shining examples. Setting students challenges around sustainability which do beyond the usual “make a project from a recycled material”, but instead consider the carbon footprint of the product, manufacture technique which minimise material use (combining advanced CAD techniques such as topology optimisation) or even designing for repair in their own design projects can embed skills which could see our students become the next generation of climate focussed technical innovators. 

SK – The teachers we worked with on our project stressed that what they needed was support, particularly in rapidly-evolving areas like D&T. They mentioned wanting things like CPD resources for themselves, case studies, data, sample assessment questions and high-quality, adaptable lesson resources. In your opinion, within the constraints of the current specifications and national curriculum, what would help you improve the climate literacy of your students without increasing workload for you and your colleagues, or information overload for your learners?

MN – I have found that industry-supported and informed CPD for staff, in which the learning resources have a very real basis in industry application, are invaluable. In all the best opportunities for our students on the course, it’s real-life application of the skills or learning content based in industry-specific situations that always delivers strongest. Once students can tune into this, it unlocks a great opportunity for them to realise the true value of their skill and knowledge development in D&T. 

In the current materials we study, there is not enough of a focus to develop climate literacy, as the industry-based learning opportunities are not aimed in a way that sufficiently considers environmental issues; for instance, by making manufacture techniques or material usage of current products more environmentally friendly. Currently the focus is instead on developing an advanced understanding of products when a focus on environmental impact could be stronger. 

Whilst there are opportunities for an environmental focus in some areas, it would be better if this was something students were directly encouraged to explore in their learning, with the expectation of examination questions being likely to assess this skill. For example, rather than focusing on physical or mechanical property enhancement, another viable point of focus could be the lowering the embodied energy or a material.  

SK – Is it fair to say that small and rapid changes could lead to students leaving school with a far better appreciation of the relevancy of what they have learned to their understanding of climate change, and of its relevance to their future lives and careers? 

MN – This is hard to determine. Any small and rapid changes must be in keeping with what the students feel they want to know and understand in their future lives. Yet now more than ever, young people are more environmentally conscious. They are more aware of the devastating effects which climate change can have, through both their lived experiences of climate change events and the increasing presence of environmental activism in the mainstream. 

Small and rapid changes, such as shifting the focus from ‘learning more about materials and manufacture’ to ‘how can we make materials and manufacture more sustainable’ will be valuable for those students who intend to go into careers in manufacturing, engineering or design; so, equally, could be the development of skills around the appreciation of designs which truly embrace a sustainable or circular approach (as opposed to doing so on a superficial basis). In the context of my own school, small and rapid changes made to our year 12 and year 9 courses in response to feedback from pupil surveys has had a strong effect on student motivation, subject uptake and learning outcomes.

Sylvia Knight is Head of Education at The Royal Meteorological Society. Last year’s report for the Meteorological Society, Climate Literacy Amongst School Leavers, is available to read now.

Michael Noonan is Head of Technology at Queen Elizabeth’s School in Barnett. In 2021 won a special award for his work co-ordinating the production of PPE for the NHS during the pandemic, using D&T support in schools.