Home » EAD’s Rasha Ali Al Madfai: Environmental education empowers the next generation to become changemakers

EAD’s Rasha Ali Al Madfai: Environmental education empowers the next generation to become changemakers

by Madaline Dunn

In recent years, the climate crisis has escalated to unprecedented levels, and reports warn that the situation will only worsen without decisive action.

In response, there has been an awakening of environmental awareness and action, alongside calls for greater attention to be given to environmental education (EE). It is hoped that by equipping young people with the right tools and knowledge, youth can take the lead on climate action.

To hear more about how the situation is evolving, ESG Mena spoke to Rasha Ali Al Madfai, Acting Director of the Environmental Awareness Department, Environmental Information, Science, and Outreach Management at Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, who highlighted the importance of environmental education to promote sustainability, alongside the challenges hindering its expansion in schools and universities in the region.

What is the importance of promoting EE to fulfil sustainability in the Gulf Region?

Environmental education plays a pivotal role in shaping a future generation well-versed in the environment. We always remember that the founder of the UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, was the driving force behind the plantation of 150 million trees, which have helped to combat desertification. Building on his legacy, EE facilitates his vision of a long-term, sustainable UAE by empowering young people to become eco-conscious future changemakers. Beyond the UAE, the Gulf region is home to more than 50 million people, and, through the widespread implementation of EE, we can nurture a vast number of young minds, equipping them with the knowledge and tools to effectively address environmental challenges.

If we don’t preserve our natural ecosystems, we won’t be contributing to a sustainable future. For example, our mangroves are sequestering a growing amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in surrounding soil and salt marshes. Unlike terrestrial trees, this carbon isn’t released back into the atmosphere, effectively reducing greenhouse gases, mitigating the UAE’s carbon footprint, and advancing our efforts to achieve Net Zero. EE helps raise awareness of the importance of conserving such natural ecosystems within the UAE and beyond in order to continue our sustainable development goals.

Additionally, EE in the Gulf region teaches young people the different ways they can give back to an environment that has previously served their ancestors. By fostering a sense of responsibility towards the environment from a young age, EE contributes to eco-conscious decisions related to the consumption of resources and sustainable practices for years to come.

What are the challenges or obstacles hindering the expansion of environmental education within schools and universities in the region?

Some challenges or obstacles that may hinder EE could be related to the lack of professional training provided to educators in schools/universities. To combat this, we’ve launched the Sustainable Schools and Campuses Initiatives. Both of which encompass the crucial aspect of providing teachers, professors, and other educators with adequate training in providing EE. The programmes aim to equip them with the skills and knowledge to incorporate EE into the mainstream curriculum. It also ensures that teachers from various backgrounds speak the same language when it comes to sustainability, enhancing learning across the board.

Another challenge is the lack of engagement from students towards this subject. Many may find it hard to understand the terminology and processes associated with EE. To help mitigate this challenge, we have worked to incorporate EE in early childhood through our e-GREEN learning platform. The platform offers tailored discussions on regional ecological challenges, providing a comprehensive understanding of local environmental issues. Interactive modules cover topics from marine ecosystems to sustainable urbanisation and are curated by industry experts. The e-GREEN platform nurtures environmentally conscious individuals capable of making informed decisions and promotes eco-friendly educational approaches, while reducing resource consumption in alignment with global sustainability efforts and Abu Dhabi’s commitment to environmental conservation.

What are the different elements and dimensions of environmental education that need to be supported to achieve significant outcomes?

Certainly, there will always be room for improvement when it comes to implementing EE programmes. Increasing experiential learning would provide students with hands-on experience that will allow them to observe their impact in activities such as clean-ups, field trips and natural habitat exploration plus observation. At the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD), we strive to provide such experiences to youth in the UAE. For example, our Murshed – Youth Rangers Programme, as well as eco-fieldtrips through our sustainable school’s initiative (SSI), aim to expose young people to the environment and natural habitats in the UAE, allowing them to effectively monitor, conserve and clean the environment.

Another element that could further support EE is the implementation of values and positive attitudes towards the environment in school curriculums. For example, the UAE highly values environmental respect and responsibility on a social and governmental level with anti-littering and pollution laws in place to protect the environment. Instilling such values in students, especially from a young age, paves the way for future climate ambassadors to blossom.

How can cooperative and collaborative education be enhanced to address environmental challenges?

As the famous saying goes, the best way to predict the future is to create it together. Uniting and collaborating to address environmental challenges has proven to be successful, as evidenced by the UAE’s recent hosting of COP28, which saw multiple nations come together to find solutions to climate change.

When it comes to education, developing holistic and authentic information is imperative. Fostering collaboration among educators and students allows for a diverse perspective with varying examples, which create a comprehensive understanding of

environmental challenges. This can also be facilitated through global collaboration between universities and schools such as virtual exchange programmes and joint research projects, which can support cross-cultural learning experiences and promote environmental sustainability.

Furthermore, encouraging partnerships and peer learning is also effective in making people aware about the need for a sustainable future. In particular, sharing knowledge allows students to provide valuable support and feedback, enhancing the learning experience and creating a sense of collective responsibility for environmental stewardship.

Do academic curriculums provide sufficient information about the triple crises threatening the planet?

The adequacy of academic curriculums in addressing the triple crises threatening the planet can vary significantly depending on the institution, region, and level of education.

Certainly, the urgency of addressing the Triple Planetary Crisis—comprised of climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation—demands a concerted effort to enhance educational curricula at all levels.

While some educational programs may offer partial coverage of these pressing issues, there is still an absence of comprehensive curricula, which represents a significant gap in our collective efforts to prepare current and future generations to confront these challenges effectively.

How can modern technologies and artificial intelligence be utilised to enhance environmental education in the region?

With the significant rise of technology and artificial intelligence (AI) emerging in our society, this can be leveraged to enhance EE in various ways. For example, technology can be used to engage students and provide convenient access to EE programmes. Consider our application Envirospellathon, a platform to support eco-literacy across several grade-levels in school. It can be implemented on any device and used across schools simultaneously to increase key environmental knowledge.

Technology and AI can also be used to personalise learning, providing students with named certificates upon completion, increasing motivation to complete programmes as well as customised content based on the students likes and viewership. Additionally, virtual and augmented reality technologies can be used to create immersive learning experiences that can be tailored to individual students’ interests and learning styles. Through these experiences, students can explore virtual environments and visually see the impact of neglecting the environment through different virtual simulations.

How can we build upon the outcomes of COP28 to support environmental education?

A notable outcome of COP28 was the adoption of the UNESCO Greening Education Partnership, Declaration on the common agenda for education and climate change, with 38 countries pledging to incorporate climate education into their national adaptation plans. This declaration aims to fast-track education transformation to benefit more than 2 billion people and pledges to invest in the construction of climate-resilient schools in vulnerable countries.

With the building of schools and the implementation of climate education, a comprehensive environmental education plan should be put in place to ensure its swift integration into curriculums. These plans can implement climate change topics across various subjects and grade levels, ensuring that students gain a deep understanding of climate science, impacts, mitigation, and adaptation strategies. Additionally, it is imperative to ensure adequate educator training in these programmes to ensure quality EE is implemented.

Furthermore, going back to COP28, The Abu Dhabi Roadmap was unveiled during the recent 12th World Environmental Education Congress. The framework provides global recommendations to enhance EE and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). The roadmap emphasises the urgent need to ramp up EE and ESD efforts, integrating them into national and global agendas. It also advocates for harnessing AI and smart technologies, prioritising ethics and values to foster emotional connections with nature in education. The plan outlines key actions to address climate change, waste management, and biodiversity loss, with a focus on global implementation and showcases the UAE’s commitment to environmental education.

By Hadeer Elhadary, Lead Journalist, ESG Mena Arabic

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