For climate activist Sage Lenier, 24, education is a tool for empowerment. Too often, she says, higher education focuses solely on the problems instead of exploring solutions to the world’s many pressing environmental challenges. The result can leave students feeling overwhelmed and depressed.

So in 2018, as a 19-year-old student at the University of California, Berkeley, Lenier designed the Solutions for a Sustainable & Just Future course. Since then it has enrolled over 1,800 students, 600 of whom Lenier taught herself. “We are advocating for a better climate education that really prepares us for what a climate-­change future is gonna look like,” she says.

Sage Lenier at the University of California, Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif., on April 27, 2023. (Marissa Leshnov for TIME)
Sage Lenier at the University of California, Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif., on April 27, 2023.
Marissa Leshnov for TIME

More than just rethinking how we learn about environmental problems, it’s a bigger, systemwide perspective that drives Lenier’s work. The goal, she says, is to inspire young people, and equip them with the tools needed to figure out how they can best take action—right now.

“I’m not going to sit around and wait for sweeping national legislation. So, what can you do at the city, state, or county level to push the needle?” she asks.

Read More: More States Want Students to Learn About Climate Science. Ohio Disagrees

Building on the program’s success at Berkeley, in the spring of 2021 a onetime virtual version of the course was made available online in partnership with the nonprofit Zero Waste USA. And in January, Lenier—who recently completed a fellowship with the Op-Ed Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication—helped launch the Sustainable & Just Future nonprofit with the aim of bringing the solutions course to other universities around the world.

“You shouldn’t be able to get a high school diploma or college degree without having a basic understanding of the ecological systems that keep you alive,” says Lenier.

Seeing the tangible impacts of the course was “transformative for me,” she says. According to surveys by her nonprofit, 71% of students have said they are, or plan to be, involved in an environmental organization or initiative thanks to the course.

“People would come out of the program and say, ‘I’m a different person. I’ve decided to do XYZ with my life. I’ve decided to start this community initiative,’” she says. “Being able to hold space for that change—that’s the most important thing I need to do.”

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