unEarth: Teaching youth about the interconnectivity of the planet

The first in our series of profiles on finalists for the impact200 student sustainability challenge

Launched as part of McGill’s Bicentennial celebrations, impact200 is a sustainability challenge aimed at turning student ideas into concrete projects to make the world a better, and greener, place. The objective is to address, in particular, the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals designed to protect the planet, improve lives and end poverty.

The response from McGill students was impressive: 44 teams of between three and six members submitted proposals following the original call for entries in late 2020. Of those, 10 were named as finalists this past April.

The projects focus on alleviating environmental and social problems in myriad ways. These initiatives include everything from converting harmful excess algal bloom into biomass and transforming solid waste into nutrition; to purifying contaminated water and developing a solar mobile refrigerator for clinics in remote regions. The common thread tying all impact200 finalists together is to make the world a better place.

Each finalist received funding and expert mentors to help develop a proof-of-concept during the summer. The impact200 initiative would not have been possible without the generous financial support of the Sustainability Projects Fund, the Faculty of Science, and the Faculty of Arts.

Leading up to the announcement of the winning project in December, we will feature each of the 10 finalists in the Reporter.

Today, we speak with members of the unEarth team.

Tell us about the unEarth initiative

unEarth is a virtual educational platform supplemented by an educator’s manual, designed to teach youth (ages 9-13) about sustainability through the lens of environmental systems thinking (EST). EST is the understanding that all environmental systems, as well as human actions, are connected.

unEarth displays these relationships interactively (similar to a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’), where users get to make decisions that determine the fates of ecosystems.

As part of the Impact200 competition, we are developing three environmental systems to explore, each of which will be available in English, French, and Spanish: The Saint Lawrence River, the Mesoamerican Reef, and the Amazon Rainforest.

Beyond the Impact200 competition, we hope to develop more ecosystems, incorporate traditional ecological knowledge, and offer unEarth in more languages.

How many people are on the team?

Our all-female team is composed of six graduate students.

  • Content creation: MK Hickox (Biology/Redpath Museum, PhD2), Alexis Heckley (Biology/Redpath Museum, PhD2)
  • Translation: Sarah Chamberland-Fontaine (Natural Resources, BSc/MSc alumni), Ilse Esparza (Natural Resources, MSc3),
  • Graphics: Julia Briand (Biology, MSc3), Charlotte Steeves (Biology, MSc3)
  • Research: all team members

Which of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals does the unEarth project address?  

unEarth was developed to address quality education, life on land, and life below water.

unEarth addresses quality education by teaching users about the concept of environmental systems thinking. Moreover, to ensure that our platform is widely distributed (and is therefore accessible to as many users as possible), we are negotiating collaborations with international NGOs to reach users in remote areas throughout the Americas.

unEarth addresses life on land and life below water by helping users better understand the issues that terrestrial and aquatic environmental systems face. By showing how these systems are connected, we hope to foster awareness of multi-scale environmental change among youth.

What was the genesis of the initiative?

All of our team members have backgrounds in science, yet we study very different systems (ranging from fish in Alaska to mangroves in Panama). Although we were aware of the connections within and between our study systems, we realized that such connections are not traditionally taught in classrooms. This realization was the genesis of unEarth.

unEarth is designed to showcase connections between environmental systems, so that youth can grasp how environmental change occurs across multiple scales, as well as how human decisions and actions can affect entire systems.

Being students during the pandemic, all members of our team were also wholly familiar with the difficulties of learning at home. It often felt like opportunities for learning through exploration were limited, and we wanted to create a space for students to learn and have fun.

Could you tell us a bit about the mentorship phase of the impact200 competition? How did it work, how beneficial was it?

Our mentors Clemence Stanley and Justin Hunt have provided us with invaluable guidance relating to business, technology, and start-ups. We worked particularly closely with Clemence during the development of our idea and while writing the initial proposal. Justin was valuable in helping us plan how unEarth could continue to grow beyond the end of this competition.

As well, although they are not our official mentors, we would also like to acknowledge Jacky Farrell, and Laura Rebeca Esquivel from the McGill Science Outreach Program, who have trained us in inquiry-based learning techniques and inspired us to create the educator’s manual (a guide that is intended to complement unEarth, helping educators teach the content).

Finally, Ingrid Birker from the Redpath Museum Public Program was very supportive in helping us to launch our platform during Science Literacy Week.

What are the biggest challenges the team has faced and how did you overcome them?

We originally intended to launch unEarth in schools in Montreal before the competition deadline. However, given that we developed our prototype during the summer months and that schools were closed, we were unable to do so.

In the fall, we’ve encountered additional challenges due to coronavirus-related government restrictions. Fortunately, we were able to collaborate with the Redpath Museum and launch our platform during Science Literacy Week. We’ve also reached out to individual teachers directly, who have provided valuable feedback, and positive reviews of our platform.

Where does the initiative stand at present?

At present, the Saint Lawrence system is fully developed and is available in English, French and Spanish on our virtual platform. We have also developed and translated the Mesoamerican reef and tropical forest systems, which will be available on our platform in a few weeks. With additional funding, we hope to develop new ecosystems, and integrate traditional ecological knowledge in collaboration with indigenous people.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We are very grateful to have been able to take part in this competition. This project has given us the opportunity to apply our research to engage with young people and create a more sustainable tomorrow.

Watch the videos of all the Finalists of the impact200 Bicentennial Student Sustainability Challenge and vote for your favourite project. Winners will be announced on December 2. Vote here.

Watch the short video below for more information about unEarth


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Laura Wittebol, Dr.
2 years ago

This sounds like an amazing app! how can local high school teachers obtain a copy to try/use?