Sustainability for Students

For the past few years I’ve had a chance to work on a variety of projects around Sustainability and Education. In 2016 I initiated a conversation with Chatham University, South Fayette, and Fort Cherry School Districts around Sustainable Issues. This led to the Seeds of Change conference that will occur this year on March 4, 2019 at the Eden Hall campus of Chatham. I have also worked on a variety of Sustainability Design Challenges for the Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh with schools from the Parkway West Consortium of Schools. We’ve looked at food, gardening, water management, and energy issues. I’m just beginning to develop Sustainable Energy projects around solar and other sustainable energies with a local Pittsburgh company, AYA Instruments, and the Community Day School of Pittsburgh.

Sustainability projects are also growing worldwide. Birdbrain Technologies, a Carnegie Mellon University spin-off company,  found its way to the 2019 World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. Each year sponsors an activity around sustainability and recycling. Here’s a blurb from the Birdbrain Chirps that outlines what happened. (Make sure you check out the video at the end of the article.)

Leaders of over 100 governments and more than 1,000 global businesses came together at this annual meeting to create an agenda to improve the state of the world. And with programming and robotics as a vehicle, students were able to have a seat at the table.

Educator Su Adams from the United Kingdom helped lead students in Salesforce’s Davos Code 2019 event, where they were prompted to create a window display to show how they plan to keep plastics out of the ocean. This display was showcased for leaders to see throughout the course of the forum.

“The learning opportunities reached much further than programming alone can achieve, as students were tasked with turning process-based sentences into a visual representation for their collective diorama,” Adams says.

Prior to the event students began collecting plastics in Davos, which were repurposed into new creations at Davos Code 2019. Students used their own shredder and moulder machines to create their building blocks. With the help of the Hummingbird Robotics Kit, models were brought to life to illustrate their messages about plastic reuse.

This project had a monumental effect outside of the World Economic Forum. “Previously, very little plastic was recycled in the local community,” says Adams. “Following a campaign which spanned just 6 months, students affected change at a local government level when the municipality of Davos provided bins for recycling in their local environment. The diorama provided the perfect medium for celebrating the achievements of their campaign.”

By demonstrating better uses for plastic through their robotics diorama, a sustainable impact was made in the community for generations to come.

Adams summarizes, “There were highs and lows, frustrations and jubilance. Everyone experienced the payback that investment of time, effort, and teamwork provide.”

LEARN MORE by watching this video

Building Sustainable Systems

In today’s world we must look at more than just creating new systems to solve problems. We need to think about how these systems can be sustained for an extended period beyond the initial implementation. I see that my work as an educational technology broker focuses on four areas of sustainability:

  • Content
  • Partnerships
  • Pedagogy
  • Events

I’ll share a variety of projects where I play a role. In each case I’ll attempt to bring to light an element of sustainability.


Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

I work with the Energy Innovation Center (EIC) in Pittsburgh to coordinate a series of Design Challenges with high school students from the Parkway West Career Technology Center Consortium of Schools. Many of the the projects deal with sustainability – food, energy, or resources. This year for one of the Design Challenges a team of student consultants from the Montour School District developed a unique approach to Sustainability as part of a Challenge looking at LEED certification. The student consulting team created a Green Wall that integrated an Aquaponics solution. The student consulting team actually constructed a prototype at their high school to determine the feasibility  for this sustainable solution. The fish provide the nourishment for the plants that are part of the green wall. According to the students, “The green wall that is displayed at Montour is an example of an innovation recommended to the EIC building. Our team also thought it would be a great addition to our school’s environment by making students aware of environmental friendly ways to improve air quality, educate the public, and provide a unique aesthetic to our school.”


For six years I served on the Board of Directors for the Manchester Academic Charter School (MACS). As MACS grew, we, Board Directors, know we would either need to add a new building to house the middle school or find another solution. By chance the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh wanted to expand their programming to include middle school learners. With the help of Larry Berger, a MACS Board member and the founder of SLB Radio, a partner organization of the Children’s Museum, MACS was able to begin to plan for MuseumLab, a sustainable partnership that also includes several other Children’s Museum partners. The key to this partnership is how an formal K-8 educational provider can not only work with an informal learning partner, but actually co-exist. How can each organization benefit from each other’s resources? According to Jane Werner, the Executive Director of the Children’s Museum, “The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is interested in learning and experiments in learning.  The MuseumLab  Project gives us a chance to find out how what we know about learning in the informal world of the museum can be transferred to the formal classroom and vice versa.  No one has ever failed a museum, so this will allow us to design experiences  more easily than the formal classroom.  We see this space as a true learning environment with dialog between learning scientists, researchers, teachers, designers and museum educators.” At this time Museum Lab is still under development. MACS hopes to move its middle school into Museum Lab around January 2019. However, even in the planning stage, it’s obvious that this partnership will be a sustainable relationship that provides the Children’s Museum and MACS with new opportunities that will grow and increase over time.


Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

In order to get teachers to think about sustainable systems it’s necessary that they experience best practices. Both Studio A, an Avonworth project, and the STEAM Innovation Summer Institute developed by the South Fayette School District are examples of teaching models for educators. Studio A uses a systemic framework built around Human-Centered Design Thinking, Project-based Learning, and Arts Integration. This type of framework builds on the strength of each strategy to provide a more complete approach to teaching and learning. South Fayette taps into another approach that the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has developed – combining Computational Thinking with an Engineering Design approach. Educators have a chance to discover elements from both programs during summer workshops that both Avonworth and South Fayette offer. For 2018 the Studio A workshop will occur on July 10-12, while the South Fayette sessions will run from June 18-21.


One of the best ways to to see Content, Partnerships, and Pedagogy in operation is to attend a conference or special event. This year Birdbrain Technologies will kick off a new conference, Catalyzing Learning, on July 23-25, 2018 in Pittsburgh. Birdbrain Technologies started as a robotics project in the CREATE Lab at CMU.  Tom Lauwers, while working on his PhD at CMU developed a spin-off company to bring the Hummingbird and Finch robots into the educational market. The Catalyzing Learning Conference intends to be an opportunity for educators to not only learn from each other about robotics in the classroom, library, or museum, but to provide new conversations around teaching and learning. Katie Henry, the Director of Professional Development for Birdbrain hopes to make sustainability a key goal for this event. According to Katie, “Our goal with Catalyze Learning is to meet educators where they are in their every day practice.  Many educators are looking for ways to integrate robotics and coding within curriculum – not just as a form of assessment or fun extra, but as a core part of instruction. At Catalyze Learning, educators will level up their own coding skills, receiving practical classroom resources, and spend time planning for 2018-2019 school year.”

So often educators are energized by an event, but there’s no element at the event to provide for sustainability. Birdbrain plans to use the final day of the conference for attendees to process what they learned and to compose a plan of action, thereby adding an element of sustainability.