Project-Based Learning in Environmental Economics 2015/16

by Jason Welker Economics Teacher, Upper School

This year marked the third iteration of an elective course offered to Zurich International School students in Grades 10, 11 and 12, Environmental Economics. The course was designed to provide students with the opportunity to learn about real world applications and examples of economic theories in relation to the environmental challenges facing society today. For roughly half of the time in the course students engage in project-based learning (PBL), a way of learning that allows them to work in teams investigating, educating one another and the community, and creating action plans around real world topics that interest them.

This year the class of 18 students worked in teams of four or five to develop projects around four real world environmental issues:

  • Fairtrade as a strategy for sustainable human development

  • Carbon offsetting as a means of reducing an organization's carbon footprint

  • Recycling and waste management in Switzerland

  • Clean drinking water in the developing world

Projects unfolded in three phases throughout the year, each in which students had to meet concrete deadlines and produce evidence of their learning to the teacher, classmates and the community. Starting with “Investigation”, in which students conducted formal research on their topic and prepared a 15 minute presentation to educate their classmates, projects moved onto the “Awareness” and “Action” phases, in which students taught a lesson on their topics to ZIS lower school classes and finally organized and enacted a project in or beyond the ZIS community to make a meaningful social impact in the area of their chosen issue.

This year’s projects culminated in several successful actions in and beyond the ZIS community, including the following:

  • The Fairtrade team worked with Senn Kafe, the supplier of coffee to our faculty kitchens, to see about replacing our regular coffee supply with Fairtrade certified coffee. With the support of the school’s business manager, Lower School teachers will enjoy Fairtrade coffee next year, and if feedback is positive, we’ll roll it out to the whole faculty second semester. Additionally, the team worked with the athletics office to replace footballs at the upper school with Fairtrade certified balls to promote the protection of workers in the industries that provide us with our everyday consumer goods through living wages and safe working conditions. The team also created a page for the ZIS homepage to raise awareness of Fairtrade products.

  • The carbon offsetting group worked once again with ZIS’s carbon offsetting partner, SouthPole Carbon, to research and identify suitable projects for ZIS to finance in the coming year with money from our carbon offsetting fund. The team then made a video about their project about their project to raise awareness in the ZIS community about the ways the school will eliminate its carbon footprint moving forward.

  • The recycling group worked with our Admissions team and the Development office to create and publish a handbook to recycling in Switzerland, targeted at new ZIS families. It has been published both in the online community portal and on paper and provided to each campus’ front desk for ZIS families to benefit from next year.

  • LifestrawThe clean drinking water group continued a project from last year, which provided two LifeStraw Community water filters to the community in Morocco visited by ZIS students during the upper school’s Classroom Without Walls (CWW) trips. This year’s team first sought feedback from the Moroccan community and learned that they required clear instructions on assembling and maintaining the filters, and then took it upon themselves to develop such instructions in three languages and with images. Two additional filters will be delivered by this year’s CWW Morocco group, along with the new instructions, to help bring the benefits of safe drinking water to a remote community in the Atlas Mountains.

The Environmental Economics class will continue next year with over 20 students currently enrolled. The effectiveness of project-based learning as an alternative to the traditional classroom experience for delivering both content and developing skills like communication, collaboration and teamwork has been proven over three years of successful projects in this class. While other classes in all subject areas develop their own PBL experiences for ZIS students, project-based learning will continue to evolve in this elective class open to grade 10, 11 and 12 students looking for a fun and engaging way to learn about and take action on real world issues.

Photo 1: ZIS students interview the local sheikh in Zawiya Ahansal, a remote valley in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, about the lack of clean drinking water in his community with a LifeStraw Community water filter provided by the Environmental Economics class.


Photo 2: Grade 10 Environmental Economics students teaching a lesson on the difference between Fairtrade products and non-Fairtrade to Grade 3 students.

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