McGill students’ sustainability initiative plants seeds of change

Innovative program offering hands-on learning to elementary students earned undergrads a trip to Norway
The founders of SEED spent two weeks sailing off the coast of Norway aboard the Statsraad Lehmkuhl alongside 150 Under the Starry Skies competition participants from almost 30 different countries.” From left: Hugo Paulat, Cameron Toy Kluger, Oliver Abrams and Felix von Harpe.

In December 2022, Felix von Harpe, an undergraduate Finance student, saw an Instagram post about the Under the Starry Skies competition, sponsored by the World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA). The annual competition encourages young people, in teams of four, to propose and implement innovative ideas centred on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Prizes include intensive project management training and a boating trip in Norway.

Von Harpe discussed the opportunity with two of his then-floormates in Upper Residence, whom he knew shared his interest in sustainability: Hugo Paulat (joint major in Computer Science and Biology) and Cameron Toy Kluger (honours Environmental Science). Toy Kluger then brought on Oliver Abrams, a Business Analytics and Strategic Management student, to be the fourth team member.

 A need for environmental education

The group brainstormed, eventually deciding to focus on education.

“We thought about the kind of sustainable education we would have wanted and needed when we were younger,” explains von Harpe. “That’s how we all agreed that education would be a surefire way to make a tangible impact.”

Student Education for Environmental Development was created with the goal of bringing free sustainability-focused education to schools across Canada, starting in Montreal, in order to inspire young students to be more active in caring for the environment.

“We called our project SEED because we hope to ‘plant the seed’ for the future generations who will inherit our planet,” says von Harpe.

Sailing in Norway

The proposal was one of 30 projects selected in the first round of evaluations, out of 3,000 applications.

The team next embarked on several weeks of intensive training offered by WFUNA, which led to the development of a final project proposal, and then an invitation to Norway.

“In September 2023, all four of us boarded a flight to Ålesund,” says Toy Kluger. “We spent the next two weeks sailing aboard the Statsraad Lehmkuhl, the most famous ship in Norway, alongside 150 other participants from almost 30 different countries.”

The group had the opportunity to present SEED to administrators from the United Nations Association of Norway, as well as to lead groups in youth environmental conferences and to speak with business leaders.

“We learned about cultures from all around the world and made friends with people we would have likely never met otherwise,” Toy Kluger says.

Teaching about composting

Although SEED is currently focused on Montreal schools, the team has also presented in the United States. Two of the founders (Toy Kluger and Abrams) hail from New York and the San Francisco Bay area respectively. The team has also delivered its program at schools and summer camps in California, New York, and Philadelphia.

What makes SEED successful? In addition to introducing the science behind specific environmental issues, students benefit from the team’s hands-on approach.

Oliver Abrams explains composting to elementary school students preparing to build their own mini-composts in the jars on their desks.

“Our activity section lets students build ‘solutions’ to the environmental problem that’s being presented,” explains Paulat. “For example, our first lesson was about composting and its benefits to communities around the world.”

“We aim to teach students in the most engaging way possible by having them build their own mini compost-in-a-jar,” von Harpe elaborates.

Ensuring SEED takes root

Despite still working on their respective degrees, the SEED founders have been steadily expanding their initiative’s roster with the hope of it continuing independently after they graduate in 2026.

“We’ve recently reorganized and brought on 12 new members to help run our operations,” says Toy Kluger. “We’ve already implemented different teams and roles within SEED, so we’re hopeful that the existing structure will outlast us.”

Made up entirely of volunteers from the University, the team unites McGillians from different faculties behind a common cause.

“It was great seeing how many environmentally minded and engaged students there are in the McGill community!” says von Harpe.

For his part, Toy Kluger says McGill’s huge array of sustainability organizations and clubs was part of what attracted him to the University.

The team has been working on adding educational materials and beefing up content on their website, as well as establishing partnerships to keep the program free.

One important priority is to develop SEED’s capacity to deliver its programs in French. The team has recruited French-speaking educators and will be translating its materials.

“We see SEED’s future as one where we provide students who don’t have access to sustainability education the chance to get a positive experience in class, then keep learning through our website, all completely free,” says Toy Kluger.

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