A teaching programme in one of the poorest and most densely populated rural regions of Chile is leveraging indigenous knowledge to use science and education for sustainable development (ESD) to improve lives.
The Experimento in Araucanía programme was among nominees for the 2019 UNESCO-Japan Prize on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), which rewards outstanding projects as part of UNESCO's wider work on ESD.
The programme, which began in 2013 and is backed by Siemens Stiftung, has been developed by the Centre for Local Development (CEDEL-UC), part of Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, at its regional campus based in the small town of Villarrica in southern Chile. Its overriding goal is to make science more pertinent to the region and use it for social good.
Academic and Project Manager Martin Bascopé said: “We are the only regional campus of a large university and are based in a town of 60,000 people in Mapuche territory. The area is not only one of the poorest in Chile but has the highest concentration of indigenous people living from forestry, cattle, agriculture and some tourism.”
“The indigenous people are facing both cultural and environmental challenges, often unaware of the wealth of their sustainability knowledge. We are working to preserve and maintain that knowledge and build exchanges with scientists, teachers and students.”
The programme, which works in 24 counties and with 194 schools, 421 teachers and some 12,100 students, has three main pillars: offering place-based educational opportunities to build agency for change; transformative and transdisciplinary education using non-mainstream sources of knowledge and practical traditions from the territories; and value-oriented learning.
The campus has two undergraduate programmes to teach preschool and primary school teachers and two research centres: the Centre for Local Development (CEDEL-UC) and the Centre for Indigenous and Intercultural Research (CIIR).
Training teachers on sustainability
“We train teachers to train pre-school and primary school students not just to learn science or technology or mathematics for the sake of it but to build values of sustainability, social and environment justice, solidarity and empathy,” said Martin.
Teachers not only get to interact with scientists on a one to one basis but learn about how to build projects with the children, fund raise and improve the infrastructure of their schools. The programme has also established an in-service teacher training diploma in ESD.
Indigenous communities are integrated in the programme holistically with children encouraged to go outdoors to learn directly.
“Many of the children have parents or grand-parents who are indigenous and we draw on that knowledge whenever we can. For example, we can call on a grandmother who may be a specialist in harvesting and storing seeds or we may organize a guided forest walk on bird behaviour,” said Martin.
“We are building bridges not only between science and indigenous knowledge but between teachers and new research. Many teachers have expressed their growing confidence in their science skills as a result of meeting scientists through the programme,” he said. “In addition they recently created a website with free educational resources to promote these kind of experiences.”
The programme offers several free training opportunities with constant monitoring of schools and pedagogical materials and methodologies for each specific project.
For example, at the Pedro Aguirre Cerda School in Ranquilco Bajo, a rural locality in the Araucanía region, pre-school children learn science through an inquiry-based method including work with herbs, plants and trees. This work draws on the wisdom of the Machi (traditional medicine woman) Ubelinda Llancaleo, of the Madihue Mapuche community. Using basic scientific collection methods, the children have cultivated and collected different herbs, leaves and tree barks and learned about their medicinal uses. The children have incorporated this knowledge into their daily lives routines, linking science, the environment and the Mapuche worldview.
In 2017 the Pacific alliance for STEM education was established, involving partners from Mexico, Perú, Colombia, Germany and Chile and since 2018, the university is working to validate and transfer methodologies and adaptations to the other countries. “The idea of creating multisectoral territorial alliances to promote and enhance change in the educational systems towards sustainability is the main aim of the alliance,” said Martin.
Creating new teaching spaces
Looking to the future, the programme has just opened a new complex with a large auditorium and teaching spaces for undergraduate programmes on campus dedicated to sustainable development.
“We hope this little campus in South America will become a central node for sustainability experiences which can be shared in the continent and outside. We have just held our first conference, which drew nine countries and 100 teachers and principals.”
“We are also keen to properly record data on all work being done in the region on education for sustainability,” he said.
To gauge student progress a tablet-based game has been developed which assesses impulse control, cognitive flexibility and working memory. The thinking behind this evaluation is that children who have had the possibility to work in place-based research projects tend to improve their executive functions.
“Besides using these tablet-based standard measures, we are much more interested in assessing the students' enjoyment, empathy, responsibility and awareness in relation to nature. In order to motivate them rather than make them anxious about the future of the planet we want them to build something themselves that addresses a particular challenge. It could be an art activity or a science-based product, anything that builds agency. We have even had five-year-old children going to the local town hall to present their research!” said Martin.
Education for Sustainable Development empowers people with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, values and behaviour needed to think and act for a sustainable future. It is also about including sustainable development issues, such as climate change and biodiversity into teaching and learning. UNESCO promotes and implements ESD at all levels and in all social contexts, placing particular attention to the importance of communities and harnessing indigenous and local knowledge.