Constructing a rammed-earth building or experiencing tree planting aren't the usual classroom activities, but for students in the Off the Grid program at Tommy Douglas Collegiate getting their hands dirty is all a part of the learning.
Off the Grid is a half-day, full-year learning experience for Grade 9 students that introduces students to issues such as climate change, sustainable living and social justice. Students experience school in a hands-on manner and gain insight into the complex systems that govern life.
"We have been thinking of different ways to teach the students in an experiential learning environment and trying to get them out of the class as much as possible," said teacher Mike Prebble
"Within the school, each student group within the course launches a campaign — waste reduction, composting, solar energy, and energy consumption. It has taken them off in a lot of different paths. It is a case-based class so I give them one issue, they ask a bunch of questions about it and then they run with it. It is a very inquiry-based kind of method . . . and we tie it into the curriculum."
The program was launched in September 2017 and provides students with an opportunity to spend each afternoon together as part of an integrated approach to meeting curricular goals in social studies, science, English language arts and arts. Students are exposed to experts in the fields of environment and sustainability and have the opportunity to work alongside like-minded peers who are passionate about positively influencing the school and Saskatoon community
"The idea of the course is to build leaders in the community," Prebble said. "They don't necessarily have to be around environmental issues, but we want to create leaders who can articulate their point of view, have difficult discussions with people from a variety of ideologies and be able to change the status quo."
Student Ethan Done says the approach to learning applied to Off the Grid gives students the freedom to do what they want within the parameters of the particular assignment or learning goal.
"A lot of things we cover are the traditional things that you would learn in the classroom. We have learned the Grade 9 science curriculum, the Grade 9 social curriculum and the Grade 9 arts curriculum," he explained, "but there are things that students are learning in this course that you could not have learned otherwise. Some of these things include leadership, taking responsibility and taking action toward something you are passionate about."
Student investigations have included such issues as water quality, particularly on First Nation's land, as well as issues that directly affect their school such as recycling and composting, the installation of solar panels, and a pilot project to determine the effect of reduced lighting in terms of energy consumption, cost and the learning environment.
"Many people think this program is to make us tree-huggers," student Hasan Kazmi said with a laugh, "but the main point of this program is leadership. That is one of the basic skills we need."
The concept for the course grew out of student interest in the school's eco club. One of the program's goals is to contribute to greater overall environmental awareness within the school as students move through their high school career and illustrate ways in which students can pursue their interest after graduation.
"The target of Grade 9 students is a nice way to start the change of leadership in the school when it comes to thinking greener," Prebble said. "We don't see this as the pinnacle of what we are doing. Working toward the transformation of our school becoming a net zero school has been one of our goals from the get-go with eco club."
For Ethan Done, involvement in Off the Grid has broadened his perspective on life and community and encouraged him to consider a wider range of future career options.
"I've realized that the point of being alive is to help other people," he said. "The point of getting a job is not so that you can live a good life. it is so you can enable other people to live a good life. Before this I didn't think that way, but now that I have been in the program I do think this way."
Two granting agencies have supported Tommy Douglas over the past two years in anticipation of Off the Grid being started. The McDowell Foundation, through its teacher research initiatives attached to the course, and the Saskatoon Public School Foundation for its assistance with purchasing solar panels have both been instrumental in creating a more sustainable program.