Mapping a More Sustainable Future

Digital tools help youth bring a fresh perspective to global sustainability challenges.

A gaggle of South Florida teenagers slosh through mucky water along the bank of a tangled mangrove forest. One young woman carries a black shoulder bag holding equipment for the day’s activity: water quality sampling. On the other side of the planet, in the Philippines, a group of high school students conducts a survey of families, tracking annual carbon footprint compared to socioeconomic status. In Bolivia, students explore the impact of shrinking glaciers on their Andes Mountain community, recording a dramatic reduction in the water level of Lake Titicaca.

These students are all part of an international program for youth called My Community, Our Earth (MyCOE). Through the lens of geography, students conduct local environmental research, and then share their findings with people across the country and around the world, working toward solutions for global sustainability challenges. The program began in 2002 as an initiative for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. First launched as a contest for student projects, MyCOE has expanded to encourage hands-on geography-based learning with meaningful outcomes for middle-school through university-aged students. Several organizations partner to support the program, including the Association of American Geographers, NASA, the U.S. Department of State and the United Nations Environment Programme.

After nearly 700 youth-led projects in over 100 countries during the past 13 years, the program is looking to the latest technology to fuel a new future in worldwide connectivity, and in turn, a brighter future for environmental sustainability. “When we first started, students were doing hand-drawn maps and mailing them to us,” recalls Patricia Solis, director of outreach and strategic initiatives at the Association of American Geographers. Today, students, teachers and mentors can easily upload their projects to the MyCOE website. To conduct their research, ­participants take advantage of real-time satellite imagery from NASA, high-­powered open-source analytical tools and Skype ­conferencing to meet each other and share ­information.

Solis sees a shrinking digital divide and increasing use of social media as a powerful combination that could bring geographic literacy to more and more of today’s youth. “Young people make up close to half of the world’s population, and 85 percent of youth live in developing nations. What if a good proportion of these young people were able to create maps, collect information, visualize it, connect what’s happening where, and ­figure out what to do with it to solve ­environmental problems?”

Solis estimates that about 18,000 students have participated in MyCOE’s Global Connections and Exchange Program so far. This summer, they will offer international youth tech camps to share more about online mapping and geographic technologies. The camps kick off at the Deering Estate in Florida, a long-time host for MyCOE projects and home to a marshy mangrove preserve.

A public park owned by the state of Florida, the Deering Estate includes a 450-acre natural preserve with seven different native habitats and trails running throughout the property. Their renowned education and outreach programs offer the young and the old a unique opportunity to walk into and experience firsthand the variety of endangered flora and fauna, even within the wetlands restoration area.

Last year, Deering Estate’s partnership with MyCOE involved dozens of youth-led projects divided according to different themes: environmental pollution, biodiversity, climate change, health and disease and urbanization, says assistant director Jennifer Tisthammer. “Each project had a conservation approach, a field study approach, and a geography or mapping project,” Tisthammer explains, “so that you were understanding the global issue in the space you were in, mapping it, and relating it to another part of the world.” Projects included canoe orienteering, flotsam cleanup, ethno botany and wilderness survival, to name a few.

Deering Estate takes a long-term approach to developing a sense of environmental stewardship in young people. “We focus on conservation and what it means to get involved in environmental decision-making,” says Tisthammer. “We try to create informed citizens and develop within them a love for the things they know—our local resources. If later they move to another place, they take with them that knowledge and passion of the local, natural things that were important to them—their sense of place. Hopefully if young adults grow older and become masters of industry, in the corporate world, they’ll know that it exists in the natural environment. They’ll know the ways man can live in harmony with nature. And they’ll practice global ­stewardship.”

Tisthammer appreciates the fresh perspective young people bring to the environmental challenges that adults often struggle to solve. “When kids look at things, they’re unbiased; they look intuitively and simplistically,” she says. And that helps kids make a difference, both in their communities and around the world.


Jane Varner Malhotra is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.


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