Makers of the future: creating sustainability together

Image: Gerd Altmann /

How can we empower children and young people to be reflective and responsible citizens, and to understand complex challenges like climate change? The co-design approach can be a path to success. In this article, a number of views and examples of successful activities are provided by Professor Maija Aksela of the University of Helsinki.

Together we are greater!

Education is a key element in sustainability (UNESCO, 2019). Promoting scientific and sustainability literacy, and skills such as critical thinking, through future-oriented and transformational education is of utmost importance. Close collaboration with scientists in academia or specialists in other areas has proven fruitful in that regard, as in the LUMA ecosystem (a network of 11 universities in Finland). Fifteen LUMA labs at universities (such as ChemistryLab Gadolin) are supporting collaboration with students, teachers and scientists or other specialists. Through visits and discussions, makers of the future and their skilled teachers learn about the nature of science in the context of sustainability, including how scientific knowledge is established (in green chemistry, for instance) and with what degree of confidence, and take actions based on the collaboration.

A successful example of how to make a better future collaboratively is the international and award-winning StarT programme, in which creative students practise collaborative project-based learning in formal, non-formal and informal education from early childhood to university.

The co-design approach as a model

The co-design approach, where the co-designers can be all kinds of learners – students, teachers, teacher educators, scientists, other specialists or industry specialists, family members – is a way to convert the latest research and innovations in sustainability into practice, both for supporting the school curriculum and for promoting teachers’ professional development by forming diverse learning communities. The national LUMA2020 programme and the International Climate Change Forum for Teachers are examples of a successful co-design process with scientists and other specialists in climate change, as is the course International Global Challenges for Youth. The co-design approach can be facilitated by guided, face-to-face communication and digital creative learning spaces like MOOCs. Various new solutions and pedagogical innovations have been co-developed since 2003.

Also useful for meaningful learning are non-formal learning environments like science clubs and science camps, and starting collaboration as soon as possible in early childhood.

LUMA Centre Finland

Image: LUMA Centre Finland

Learners as co-designers

“In our lessons we learnt a lot about the world’s ecological problems like acid rain, greenhouse effect, ozone depletion and others. We know many reasons why such problems appear, but I want to know solutions, too.”  (A young student in the non-formal LUMA science camp)

International global challenges for youth LUMA Centre Finland

Image: International global challenges for youth / LUMA Centre Finland

Learners’ questions, interests, anxiety and actions are fruitful starting points for co-designing instruction towards scientific and sustainability literacy. It appears that students’ questions about climate change are often close to scientists’ questions. Learners are also keen on a more holistic approach to sustainability, such as handling societal, moral and ethical questions and possible solutions.

How can makers of the future be engaged in good questions about sustainability? There are a lot of solid pedagogical approaches, for example student-question-based inquiry. Why not start a lesson by asking students for questions on the topic, classifying them and planning actions according to them? Digital platforms can also be used to “ask a scientist”, such as this platform on climate change. Promoting so-called “good questions” – how and why – in particular can support 21st-century skills, including higher-level thinking skills for meaningful learning.

Citizenship science education performed with other co-designers (such as scientists) could include activities that help students to participate in solving social and scientific issues through the STEAM approach, as well as possibilities to discuss them from various perspectives. For example, tasks could be based on questions such as: what can I, we as a group, and decision-makers in different fields do to help solve the issue in question? Together we are greater!

Professor Maija Aksela

Professor Maija Aksela from the University of Helsinki, Finland, has over 30 years’ experience in science education and chemistry teacher education in Finland. She is a director of LUMA Centre Finland, and keen on developing a sustainable future globally. She is a member of the Finnish UNESCO working group and the ALLEA group in climate change.