The many faces of ecological literacy: Quest Alternative’s EcoQuest Fair

Blank pages, on paper or on the screen, can be intimidating. I find this is especially true as I try to describe a high point in applied ecological literacy at the TDSB. That’s why it is only now, two weeks since my visit to Quest Alternative’s bi-annual EcoQuest Fair, that I am able to write anything about it. And even now I cannot begin to capture its essence. I cannot do it justice.

EcoQuest (“3 weeks devoted entirely to ecology”) was once again an exhilarating and almost overwhelming experience for me. The entire gym was packed with 68 smartly designed displays, each hosted by its creator. These grade 7 and 8 students prepared artfully designed display boards and engaging short talks, found ingenious ways to make their topics interactive, designed handsome brochures to be taken away, and often made direct suggestions for action when the topic called for it. And they gave their visitors information about where to go for further exploration.

This is a subject way too big and wonderfully complex for a single blog entry. I have twice sat down with these glorious pamphlets strewn around—really, taken together they make up a year-long course on ways to think, teach, learn, and act with the environment in mind.

EcoQuest’s enormous educational and social benefits

Impossible to absorb it all in a single visit. Impossible, really, to convey all that it represents about the power of inquiry-based, student-driven learning—being fully engaged, practicing taking a balanced view, deepening their knowledge, developing their communication and presentation skills, learning to interact with the public with confidence, grace, and panache, questing for solutions. All because they are in charge of and responsible for their own learning about something they have come to care about. And of course also because their teachers and parents have been preparing the soil for this growth. Yes, it is what the books and articles tell us will happen. Wonderful to see it in action!

I am not giving you the rich and long history of EcoQuest, or any details about the way the students, in 16 different committees, take charge of it all. I can only guess at the very long hours put in by the students, their supportive families, and their teachers. To judge by the quality of the work and the polish of the oral presentations, I imagine and hope it will be long-remembered by each student as a very worthwhile and irreplaceable part of their education.

How transferrable is EcoQuest to other schools? What topics are covered?

I wonder what other schools (who may not be able to suspend all other activity for 3 full weeks) interested in this model can take away? For starters, I have composed a list of the projects I heard or read about as they fell into informal categories in my own mind. Of course many topics fit in more than one place and address many attributes of learning that are assessed, reflecting the way a rich classroom lesson or unit fulfills expectation across many subject areas.

Cradle to grave, we have an impact! Exploration of how baby care can harm the environment to how people continue to harm the environment after death

The way we live now isn’t good enough. Disruptive human impact on the environment received a lot of attention—from global issues such as tar sands, ocean trawling, trashing our ocean, rising sea levels, smog, open pit mining, urban sprawl, the environment and mental health, access to clean water in the developing world, food transportation, space junk and desertification, to more focused topics like airport pollution, disappearance of honey bees, animal testing, frankenfoods, the environmental impact of golf courses, bottled water, the effects of plastic on animals.

Our rate and scale of consumption is a big problem. From wasting water, e-waste disposal, vampire power, and “affluenza” to over-packaging, disposal and re-use of tires, batteries, assessing the eco-footprint of the family (“an average home in the 1950s was the size of today’s 2 and 3 car garages”)

Understand the environmental science behind the issues. Desertification, wetlands, polar ice cap melting, acid rain, ozone layer, old growth forests, challenges of the great barrier reef, forest fires: the climate connection

Learn to make truly informed choices. Green washing, books or ebooks?, eco-friendly clothing

What is harmful to people is also harmful to the environment. Household cleaners, cosmetics, smoking

Human waste can also create new habitat! Toronto’s Leslie Street spit: a true accidental treasure

Nature’s interconnections with human life are amazing and indispensable. Ecosystem services: what we take for granted, bio-indicator animals, wetlands

Solutions The vast majority of topics with a focus on the problem also include possible solutions, usually involving personal actions. However, some students made solutions the centre of their inquiry: corporate responsibility, designing the ecologically perfect city, learning from Canada’s indigenous people, organic farming, hybrid cars, geothermal energy, energy efficient homes, fuel cells, social media, hemp (“If someone were to try using hemp as a drug they would have to smoke a hemp joint the size of a telephone pole.”)

I didn’t get to every display, so this list is incomplete. My apologies to those EcoQuesters whose displays have been inadvertently left out!

The brochures travel with me in case I have a free moment to look at them again. Out of the many messages I’d like to include here, I’ll content myself with just one.

So what?
That’s the question that concludes Parker Melnick’s brochure on “Social media: the answer to environmental reform?”

“We know we need to make a change in our environment, but knowing isn’t enough any more. We are at the point of if we want to progress further and stop this crisis, we need to stop saying, “I know,” and start saying “here’s what I am going to do about it.” And social media can be the catalyst, but it’s up to us to choose to use it in a positive or negative way.” 
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Congratulations to everyone in the Quest Alternative community for a truly amazing flowering of applied ecological literacy. Thank you for one of the educational highlights of my year. I am already looking forward to the next one in the spring of 2014!

Eleanor Dudar
TDSB EcoSchools Specialist

P.S. It was hard to leave
The students had given morning and afternoon presentations to 900 students and to another gym full of people at night. Tired, perhaps, but many were still brimming with enthusiasm for their subject matter. The evening show was to end at 8:30. But even the announcement saying “time to go” didn’t budge some of us, so enthralled were we by the student presenters. At 8:45 two other adults and I tore ourselves away from a wonderfully clear demonstration of how a hydrogen fuel cell works, urged by the presenter, Matthew Frame, to give him just a day to upload all his material before visiting his website! The teaching and learning never stops…

DeSmogBlog

Here’s a source of solid research and opinion on green issues that some of you may already know. This very active blog is content-rich. Started in 2006 by Canadian public relations guru Jim Hoggan, it dissects the half-truths and outright lies that surround climate change. These opinions do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Ecolit Blog writers, but it is a treasure trove worth sharing. Hoogan’s critical thinking (Dec. 6) lays bare the fallacies in Margaret Wente’s December 1 Globe and Mail column about climate change science, in which he links to an April 18th post by Chris Mooney on “motivated reasoning” which accounts for the psychology of climate change deniers. Like Daniel Kahnemen in Thinking Fast and Slow, this perspective cautions against assuming that all “logic” is rational. In a Dec. 4 post, David Suzuki also looks at “twisted logic” and the ethics, of nature’s opponents. Lots of food for thought—and lively debate!