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Place-based sustainability learning

By Kate Woodford, Senior Manager, Marketing and Business Development
24 December 2021

Place-based sustainability learning


Adapted from White Paper 2: UWCSEA Changemakers: Placing sustainable futures at the heart of a school

No school focused on sustainability would confine their lessons to the classroom, but at UWCSEA our entire campuses have been co-opted into providing students of all ages real-life learning opportunities linked to the UWC mission.

While many in our community will be aware of the Greenmark Platinum Super Low Energy accreditation which has been awarded to both campuses by Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority, and some will have adopted and perhaps even installed a solar panel or planted tree in support of our student-led initiatives, there has been quiet and extensive progress towards consolidating the unique educational opportunity that the facilities on both campuses provide for our students.

The next steps in creating a mission– aligned education based on the premise that students can learn more effectively by immersing themselves in real-life experiences that are relevant to them is a collaborative project to provide deliberately planned opportunities for students to bring their classroom learning to life on campus. A key factor in taking this place-based approach to planning learning experiences is the switch in how the campus facilities are utilised; rather than simply providing a venue for learning, the buildings—and those who manage them—are reframed as direct contributors to the education of the students by providing relevant, real life examples.

Student agency and shared purpose Each campus holds myriad potential for place-based real-life application of classroom lessons: the way they are designed or remodeled, lit, cooled, landscaped, managed and cleaned— ensures that students are surrounded by real-life examples of sustainability in action. Over the past decade, our students have been involved in the planning and development of the campuses, and now contribute ideas to improvements and refurbishments. Further, there are programmes in place across many of the elements of our learning programme for students to contribute to the sustainable operation of the campuses.

At Dover, for example, the Solar for Dover student group designed a live dashboard to help monitor the solar fields on that campus, while the Solar for East team have made over 80 classroom presentations on environmental management to students of all ages. Both campuses also have a live solar lab, supporting hands-on environmental engineering and science lessons.

Place-based learning “immerses students in local heritage, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences using these as a foundation for learning.” Center for Place-Based Education at Antioch University, Boggs School

Defining peace

The first fundamental aspect of determining how peace education might be built into learning starts with a definition. This may seem a simple step, but peace can occur across many levels. There can be peace within yourself or in your family, peace within a community and, at its largest consideration, peace between countries.

Peace may also take many different forms in practice. Positive peace is when the attitudes, structures and institutions that underpin peace are in place, function well and a society is free of violence. Negative peace is “the absence of violence and the absence of fear and violence” according to the Institute for Economics and Peace, a non-profit think tank. However, in this state, while a society may be free from violence, its peace structures are still fragile and lack the necessary frameworks to support it into the future. This in turn can result in a peace deficit, where the peace a society has gained can’t be sustained in the future by its internal socio-economic development and the institutions and support networks needed to maintain peaceful societies.

At UWCSEA, students examine all potential aspects of peace, but the focus is on giving students the understanding, skills, and knowledge to help them build the structures and relationships that can help support peace into the future.

“There are lots of definitions of peace. And the most common idea is that peace is the absence of war, that idea of negative peace. But when we think about peace at UWCSEA, and when we talk about peace education, we’re really talking about positive peace,” says Alchin.

The programme is designed to link to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16, to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

As a pillar of the school’s educational philosophy, it helps guide the teaching approach across the Primary, Middle and High Schools, and enables peacebuilding to be woven into many different subject areas in all grade levels. Peace is also one of the “Five Ps” that the United Nations uses to conceptualise sustainable development, and this definition therefore interlinks peace education with other important Mission Competencies, like Sustainable Development, and Interpersonal and Intercultural Understanding.

Linking classrooms to campus

Student involvement as part of their participation in the learning programme is a key to the success of numerous operational initiatives, from managing the compost systems, to helping the canteens become zero waste, to cultivating seedlings and maintaining gardens. It has been a conscious effort to build educational opportunities into as many aspects of the day-to-day operations on each campus as possible. This extensive network of real-life examples is now something that Ellie Alchin, Director of Teaching and Learning on Dover and Aman Singh Chauhan, Head of Facilities and Operations across both campuses, are working to extend by engaging the expertise of the Facilities and Operations teams who run the sustainable buildings in support of student learning in modules across the academic programme.

To this end, curriculum leaders have worked with the Facilities team to build nine sustainability case studies into the academic curriculum, extending the links already established in the Service curriculum. These modules are based on a model of place-based learning, a powerful approach that gives students hands-on experience and real-life examples by combining the on-campus environment with subject-matter expertise shared by the staff responsible for operating the facilities.

Tim Lovatt, in his role as Instructional Coach and Teacher of High School Physics on Dover Campus, was one of a team planning and conducting workshops in “how teachers think” for colleagues in the Facilities and Operations team. The workshops are designed to equip staff with tools and strategies to enable them to create a greater impact—both within their teams and in their interactions with students during the case study programme. "It’s been so awesome to work with such a talented and dedicated group of people. I am not aware of many other schools with non-teaching staff who are so eager to enhance their interactions with students," said Lovatt. "In particular it’s been such a pleasure to develop and run these workshops with a team who are so enthusiastically taking up the challenge and opportunity of sharing their technical expertise with our students."

East JS Service 06
Dover Service JS Compost College Service

Taking collective action, individually

Sustainability learning doesn’t end at the gates of the school, however, and staff are often working together with engaged students to connect with suppliers to help them understand their impact and improve their commitment to sustainability, and hence that of the school. This includes the stationery suppliers who have moved to forestfriendly paper, food wholesalers who have stopped using unsustainable palm oil in products they supply through the Sodexo-run canteen, removal of single use plastic water bottles, canteen initiatives such as composting, food waste minimisation and recycling and vegetarian Wednesdays, uniform manufacturers who now source more environmentally friendly fabrics, and the transport company, who now wait until all students are boarded and ready to leave before they start the engines.

This ‘whole of school’ approach defines the way UWCSEA describes developing a mission competency, which is that a student’s education is a way for individual members of the community to develop approaches to living and skills that can be extended and built on throughout their lives.

Dover Service Solar Panel Installation

Our sustainable building journey

The Dover Campus, parts of which date back to the 1960s, was not originally designed with sustainability top of mind. However, by the time a multi-year campus rejuvenation, spanning 2009–2016 began, sustainability had become a guiding principle in decision making at the College. The long-running curriculum articulation project embedded the idea of sustainable development into the learning programme; in parallel, the College embraced the challenge of embedding sustainable practices into all facets of operations—whether designing and constructing the new East Campus or retro-fitting the existing Dover site, the efforts were extensive.

In recognition of UWCSEA’s leadership in designing, retrofitting and managing environmentally sustainable campuses, both campuses were awarded Green Mark Platinum Super Low Energy certification in 2020. Dover Campus received the award for the entire site, rather than for an individual building—a remarkable achievement and testament to the College’s commitment to put the mission into practice in operations as well as education. East Campus is one of few buildings in Singapore that has been continuously re-awarded Green Mark Platinum across the entire building life cycle, from planning and design, through construction and opening, to the energy efficient operation and maintenance of the campus. To read more about UWCSEA’s approach to Educating for Sustainable Development please visit the website and download the White Paper:

MS Composting

A community in bloom

UWCSEA East Campus has been awarded the Platinum (Diamond) award from NParks Community in Bloom for our landscape standards. This is the highest award possible, and recognises the excellence in our gardening efforts. Read more at