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Students school communities on climate change

A new generation of eco-warrior pupils are going green by taking part in environmentally friendly initiatives, writes Kathy Donaghy


Conor Canning from Moville College

Conor Canning from Moville College

Ailbhe Ní Mhaoláin and Aoife Nic Ghiolla Cearra from Coláiste Cois Life are water ambassadors

Ailbhe Ní Mhaoláin and Aoife Nic Ghiolla Cearra from Coláiste Cois Life are water ambassadors


Conor Canning from Moville College

Inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old who launched Fridays for Future, a new generation of eco-warriors are taking action in their schools to benefit the environment of their school community and further afield.

At St Columba's College in Stranorlar, Co Donegal, Senior Cycle students have been busy promoting the use of solar panels in schools. They've even created a Facebook page - Sunny Side Out - to talk about climate change and the work they're doing.

Aided by teacher Brian McCrea, the Leaving Cert and Transition Year (TY) pupils are hoping their efforts will win a 'Friends of the Earth' competition that would see them get 90pc of the funding for solar panels for their new school.

The project has acted as a launchpad for student activism and they talk about all the other ways in which young people can engage with their school communities to help the environment.

St Columba's students have also run initiatives to cut down on the use of plastic by only using reusable bottles, planted a wildflower garden and have taken part in the climate strikes protest.

According to 18 year-old Hannah Mulcahy, her passion for the environment has spilled over into heated discussions at home, like the time over Christmas she got annoyed at the amount of wrapping paper being used and when her mother kept the tap running as she brushed her teeth.

For TY student Patrick Patton, who runs the Sunny Side Out social media campaign, adults have the power to get things done when they want to. He cites the example of the speed at which a hospital was built in China to deal with the coronavirus, contrasting it to the feet-dragging from governments on green issues.

Leaving Cert student Siobhán Doyle (18) says while she's always changing her mind about what she would like to study, she is hoping she will be able focus her studies on sustainability issues. "The fact you get this chance to use your education is great," she says.

Hannah Mulcahy (right) says she would like to study law and human rights. "Sometimes it doesn't seem like you can make a big difference, but each and every one of us can make a difference."

At the other end of the county, Moville Community College Principal Anthony Doogan explains how the UN's 17 sustainable development goals filter down to the school community.

He gives the example of the school's polytunnel, which students use to grow vegetables, as a great way to teach about sustainability, healthy eating, well-being and responsible consumption.

Produce from the polytunnel is used in local restaurants and even as ingredients for healthy school lunches provided by one local restaurant, showing students how the food they grow comes full circle.

On the day the Irish Independent visits, horticulture teacher Mary McLaughlin is helping the Leaving Cert Applied (LCA) class tend to the spring vegetables. While it's early days, kale plants are blooming and, before long, beetroot, lettuce and other vegetables and herbs will be sprouting.

McLaughlin says she has seen students become more interested in the environment.

"They're tolerating less and they are thinking more for themselves, as well as challenging the way past generations have done things. There's an awareness that we could ruin all this," she says.

LCA students Jack McLaughlin (16) and Kyle McLaughlin (15) are busy watering the plants in the polytunnel. While Jack is new to gardening, Kyle has tended his grandfather's garden, growing lettuce and beetroot. Kyle believes there is too much reliance on plastic, but thinks there should be more incentives for people to go green.

Conor Canning (17) says while there's a lot of talk about the environment, politicians are not really doing much at all. He says he feels inspired by activists like Greta.

Over the next three years, the school will add on a new building, in excess of 5,000 sq metres. Ensuring that it is as energy efficient as possible is key to its development, according to the principal.

"You're creating that awareness among the student body that minimising your energy consumption is a significant contribution to sustaining the planet," says Doogan.

In the last few years, he says the level of awareness of environmental issues among students is higher than ever.

All over the country, hundreds of schools are engaged with the Green Schools movement, taking part in initiatives that support their learning about environmental issues.

At Coláiste Cois Life, Lucan, Co Dublin, TY students acting as water ambassadors have lent their knowledge to younger students. Grace Ní Ceallaigh (15) undertook a project looking at the UN Global Goals, with specific reference to goals six and 14, which relate specifically to water.

She presented her project to first and second year students: "I think it was good because it wasn't teachers presenting to them. I think they might have listened in a bit more. In the end, they came out of the class knowing a lot more than they did going in," says Grace.

Her fellow water ambassador Aoife Nic Ghiolla Cearra (16) says learning about water made her realise how much we use and taught her to be mindful of her own use and her family's use.

Ailbhe Ní Mhaoláin (15), another water ambassador, says she was shocked to learn how much water it takes to make items of clothing: "It's staggering - it's so high. It takes about 3,000 litres to make one cotton T-shirt. You need water to grow the cotton, then the dyeing process uses a lot of water. Even before I did this water ambassador programme, I did some research into the climate side of fashion and it's really changed my attitude."

When she and her friends go out to the shops now, they go to second-hand and charity shops, choosing them over high-street shops as much as they can.

"If we continue on the way we are going, it's unsustainable," she says.

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