Young Australians are imagining a world without waste thanks to an innovative course taught by Hillbrook Anglican School. The school is one of the first in Australia to embrace circularity inside and outside the classroom, with high schoolers being taught to develop the systems-thinking and skills that will be required in the circular economy jobs of tomorrow.
Hillbrook aims to be 90 per cent circular across its operations by 2030 and embed circular economy in the curriculum for years 7-10 by 2025. We caught up with Ginnese Johnston, the Hillbrook teacher behind the course, to talk about teaching kids to think differently. Read on to learn more about this school's efforts to create circular economy leaders.
Ginnese Johnston has been a science teacher for over 30 years. She currently teaches science and STEM electives to high school students at Hillbrook Anglican School.
"I have been forever passionate about the environment, trying to do my bit by educating our youth on environmental issues and 'walking the talk', but the task always seemed mammoth to me," she reflects.
"At the end of 2019, when Paul Klymenko from Planet Ark spoke to a group of us from Hillbrook about the circular economy, it changed my whole thinking and direction. This was the solution to many environmental problems in our world — I was now going to do my bit to not only clean up, but also change the root of these problems."
Inspired by this new knowledge, Ginnese took on the position of Circular Economy Coordinator at Hillbrook at the beginning of 2020. She is now working with staff and students to embed circular economy education in the curriculum and make the school's operations as circular as possible.
The Sustainable Schools Network (SSN), an organisation that supports schools to teach sustainability, has been a big source of support for the Hillbrook initiatives. Katie Norman, founder of the SSN, says it's important to take a holistic approach when bringing sustainability into the education curriculum.
"We are reimagining education by educating and connecting school communities to imagine a sustainable future. We work with schools and partner organisations to ensure sustainability education is a whole of school approach," Katie says.
"Circular economy is an important part of our work. There are many opportunities within the education context to develop and explore circular economy projects to both learn and take action for a sustainable future and the concept is a wholistic opportunity to engage schools in sustainability education."
Hillbrook became a member of the SSN in 2020 and when the group learned of the school's circular economy project, they were keen to get involved. Chelsea McLean, who was the SSN's Circular Economy Education Coordinator at the time, worked with Ginnese to come up with lesson ideas and provide teaching support.
"Ginnese and I collaborated on how to apply circular economy principles in the classroom. We were amazed by how well her students responded to the same activities we did during the course with highly creative solutions," Chelsea recalls.
"When her year 10 students chose their circular economy projects, I helped one group learn how to create a prototype for an anaerobic digester to process the tuck shop’s food scraps."
Ginnese and Chelsea are members of the ACE Hub Teacher's Community, a group formed to support high school teachers interested in teaching circular economy, develop resources and advocate for changes in the curriculum. You can find out more about the work this group is doing here.
The ultimate goal of circular economy education is to change the way students approach problem solving, no matter what kind of problem they are solving. In time, this will also change the way our societies and economies are designed in the future.
"Education is the key to turning the big ship around from a linear economy to a circular one. If we educate our youth, they will take this thinking once they leave school out to their universities, workplaces, businesses and even their homes and communities," Ginnese says.
"If we can teach it all the way through high school, it will become part of their thinking. This can then help Australia and the rest of the world make exponential changes. Other countries such as Finland educate their students from the first year at school on CE. Because of this, and their government goals, they are heading as a country to be almost fully circular by 2025."
Hillbrook wants to show just how simple it is to integrate circular economy into the existing curriculum.
"In STEM, Design and Engineering subjects in particular, projects can easily be developed to teach CE and to come up with the solutions of designing out waste and pollution. It is easy to embed CE lessons into all subject areas, not necessarily as a unit of work, although this can be done, but as stand-alone lessons," Ginnese explains.
"Having it all the way through their junior years at high school and in all subject areas, students will see the broad application of the CE and it will become part of their thinking. It would become like numeracy and literacy, which are embedded in every subject area."
Watch Ginnese give an overview of Hillbrook's circular economy course content and student projects:
Before she could teach circular economy, Ginnese decided she needed to learn more about the concept.
"The first and most important step was being educated myself. I went to the Coreo Masterclass course on CE which gave me more than a brief overview but also connections with many people from all different sectors," she says.
"At this course, I could see that problem-solving and thinking outside the box are necessary skills for solving many sustainability issues. This made me think that CE would be a perfect unit of work for our STEM classes which use project-based learning."
Ginnese also met Chelsea at the Coreo course where they bonded over their mutual interest in circular economy education. Chelsea is a PR consultant, circular economy advocate and the founder of Circular Economy Pioneers, a platform dedicated to profiling leaders in Australia’s transition to a circular economy. She also recently joined the ACE Hub team in the role of Community Coordinator of our soon-to-be-launched Collaboration Portal.
"Teachers can empower students with the knowledge and opportunities they need to create the outcomes we all need for our economy, for jobs and for the environment," Chelsea says.
"We need to enable circular education in classrooms today, so our students can lead the transition to a circular economy tomorrow. This means introducing more 'systems thinking' in schools as well as working in teams, thinking creatively and exploring."
To show teachers where to get started with teaching this concept, Chelsea developed this video that summaries the principles of the circular economy:
Taking learnings from the Coreo course, Ginnese worked closely with a colleague to develop circular economy classes for her STEM students. She used existing resources such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s lesson plans and Circular Classroom to create class content. She also mined LinkedIn for examples of circular economy action, to connect with practitioners and ask people questions.
So far, Hillbrook’s circular economy course has been taught to one cohort of students and you can learn more about the fantastic projects that came out of it in the video above.
"On the whole, the response from students has been brilliant," Ginnese says.
"I have had a dedicated group of passionate Environment Club students who have helped the school sort its waste. We have introduced uniform recycling and sustainable stationary thanks to student's ideas. Students know there is a problem and want it solved."
Ginnese's advice for other schools wanting to become more circular is to just get started.
"Do it now. Start with educating the whole school on what CE is, a brief presentation is perfect, no more than 15 minutes. Then start with one project at a time, our first as a whole school was paper. And connect with other like-minded people in your school so you don't go it alone."
Hillbrook has set a target of teaching circular economy to grades 7-10 by the year 2025. The school also hopes to be 90 per cent circular across its operations by 2030 and is working to improve water, energy, waste, procurement and printing processes.
The school has installed a digital water meter and solar panels (with the help of our sister organisation Planet Ark Power), implemented an auditing system for all waste streams, is working on a circular procurement policy and has reduced its printing by 31 per cent from 2019. But Ginnese's proudest achievement to date has been changing mindsets of students, teachers and parents.
"My greatest achievement so far at Hillbrook is the change in language and behaviours. Slowly, circularity has become part of what we do," she says.
"Parents, teachers and students themselves are spreading the word and being interested in what we do with all of our waste, or should I say resources."
Hillbrook's work is also creating a ripple effect in the wider community of Australian teachers and schools.
"Seeing how schools like Hillbrook have applied circular economy principles inside and outside the classroom will help other teachers with ideas on where to begin," Chelsea says.
"Then, it's important for schools to 'walk the talk' outside the classroom so students can see how circular economy works in real ways. Separating rubbish, reducing plastic packaging, composting, recycling old uniforms and reducing paper usage in the school are great places to start."
While recycling is just a very small part of the circular economy picture, Ginnese says it is relatively simple place for schools to begin making changes.
"There is such a long way to go to becoming circular. However, the majority of high schools around Australia do not even sort their waste. We need to do this urgently and once we have this under control, we can start implementing more circular economy principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping materials in use and regenerating natural systems."
"Our planet is on the brink of a climate crisis. Over the 20 years leading up to 2015, the Australian population increased by 28 per cent yet the amount of waste we generated increased by 170 per cent. The solution for these and other environmental issues comes from changing our current linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy into a circular one.
Schools have the opportunity to lead and accelerate this change for our planet by incorporating CE into their business and the curriculum. Our youth have the solutions and need our schools to educate both inside and outside the classroom. We as educators need to act now."
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