Fifty-two students in “Education as an Agent of Change” classes are topping all Illinois schools in competition to do the most environmental and social good during the month of Earth Day.
They’re taking part in the online Ecochallenge, thanks to Gary Swick, their instructor in the NIU Department of Leadership, Educational Pscyhology and Foundations.
It’s similar to something he has assigned in previous semesters.
“Our final project was an effort to create some change in our culture,” Swick says. “It could be a litter clean-up, a food drive, mentoring people or children. It’s wide open. They do it and get the individual benefits value, and we collectively get the value of the social good.”
But Ecochallenge packs bonus appeal.
Join or create a team. Find a cause and start the work. Log the results online. Collect points in friendly competition with others. Share the story. Watch the “collective impact add up.”
“Last October, I went to the conference of the Northern American Association of Environmental Education. I attended a session on the Ecochallenge, and then I made an appointment to talk to the rep who was there in the vendor booth because I was excited. I felt like, ‘Wow, this is a better way to guide students into a way to do some social good,’ ” Swick says.
“Sometimes coming up with a project on your own is daunting. This is easy,” he adds. “I piloted it in the fall, and students liked doing it. They were doing something, and it was a tangible for them. They had evidence. I thought, ‘I’m going to scrap the old final project and put this in to replace it.’ ”
Even better, the Earth Day Ecochallenge’s 30-day environmental and social engagement program comes in April, “right at the end of the semester.”
As of this writing, NIU’s 52-student team – “Agents of Change” – is ranked first among schools in Illinois, fourth among schools across the country and 10th overall of 810 teams nationally.
“I’m so proud of how we’re doing,” Swick says. “I never intended this to be a Huskie Pride kind of thing, but when you’re the top school in Illinois, and there are a lot of schools in Illinois that participate, it’s kind of cool.”
Here’s how it works.
Students choose 10 actions, from the personal – changing daily habits, such as reducing use of straws and plastic water bottles, or improving health and wellness – to the societal, such as conducting research on the environment, contacting and lobbying lawmakers or picking up litter.
Broad categories include wildlife, freshwater, oceans, people, food, climate and forests, says Swick, who told his students what whatever actions they chose would help them to “build habits that ensure a better shared future for us all.”
“They pick what they want to do and what they think they can do – what’s going to work for them,” Swick says. “It’s 10 percent of their semester grade, and because they had so much freedom to pick what they wanted to do, I feel like it’s certainly achievable with 30 days to participate.”
As students complete the daily challenges, they log in to the website to record what they’ve done individually to benefit the team as a collective. Earning points for their check-ins and their accomplishments provides strong psychological motivation, Swick says.
NIU’s team page displays “how many gallons of water we’ve saved, how many disposable cups we didn’t use, how many minutes we were away from a screen, how many community events we participated in, how many trees we planted, how many pounds of food waste we saved.”
Competition comes in a distant third, however, to helping humanity and meeting Swick’s learning objectives. He is assessing students on their number of logins to the website, their number of challenges completed and their reflections on the undertaking.
“What did you accomplish? What actions are you most proud of? What actions will continue?” says Swick, who is retired from a long career as an environmental science teacher at Dundee-Crown High School. “How were you impacted individually? How did you contribute collectively?”
Those are powerful questions for his EPFE 201 students, 90 percent of whom are freshmen or sophomores – and only half of whom are education majors.
“Even though we’re in the College of Education, I look at it from a liberal arts philosophy. What we’re working on is not how to be better teachers but how to be better people who are going to be teachers,” Swick says. “No matter what you’re doing to do in life, you’re going to be an educator. If you have kids, you’re going to educate your kids. If you have coworkers – if you have people you interact with socially – you’re going to be an educator.”