Neelam Patil's role as a science teacher includes equipping students K-12 with an understanding of the causes and solutions for climate change.
Christina Diaz
June 8, 2022 8:02 AM EDT

Last November, elementary schoolers in Berkeley, California gathered around a plot of land carpeted with shrubs to plant saplings like buckeye, white sage, and honeysuckle to increase the number of trees at their schools. Neelam Patil, who teaches science at Cragmont and Oxford Elementary schools, showed students at three schools in Berkeley Unified School District how to plant Miyawaki forests, or dense, biodiverse micro-forests that were first popularized by the late Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki. “It eliminates a lot more carbon than a normal forest, it grows faster than a normal forest, and it lets in more wildlife,” fifth grader Leo Niknejad told TIME.

The afforestation project has its roots in a Tweet that a friend forwarded to Patil about the benefits of Miyawaki forests to fight climate change. California lost 2.65 million hectares of tree cover from 2001 to 2021 due to wildfires, making the state the number one in the country for tree loss, and the tweet prompted Patil to learn more about the method and start a conversation with her fourth and fifth graders about the speed of deforestation in their lifetimes. “I could see how inspired my students became and wanted to involve them in a project on the ground in Berkeley,” she says. She found funding from the SUGi Project, a group that plants Miyawaki forests and builds urban forests around the world, and got started.

Today, the “pocket forests” at the three schools are overflowing with 3,300 drought-tolerant, native saplings that grow faster and require less water than normal trees. The benefits are numerous: Miyawaki forests boost mental health, reduce air pollution, promote biodiversity, create carbon sinks, and decrease temperatures in heat islands. Located at the center of the campus, Patil says the forests have completely transformed the schools into oases. “You can’t go anywhere on campus without seeing it,” Patil tells TIME. “It just brings a great sense of peace and hope for the children.”

Patil’s efforts have helped Berkeley become the first school district in the country to fund Miyawaki forests, along with the first school district in the country to fund climate literacy through a historic resolution passed last year committing $65,000 to train students in the science and solutions around climate change. Patil is also part of the Berkeley Schools Climate Literacy Working Group, and the teacher says she aims “to bring about systemic change so all students grades K-12 will possess a working knowledge of the causes and solutions for climate change.” The resolution is path-breaking for grounding students in the fact that climate change is a civil rights issue that disproportionately impacts low-income groups and communities of color. The work is already seeing an impact: Earlier this year, Los Angeles adopted a similar climate literacy resolution.

It’s clear why students cannot afford to wait. Calling her students “activists,” schoolchildren in Patil’s classes are already expressing climate anxiety. “Climate change is happening right in front of us,” says Evelyn Lloyd, a 4th grader in Patil’s class. “I’m not very happy about [climate change]. It’s going to destroy the life on Earth,” adds Ella Cody, a 10-year-old student at Cragmont Elementary School. “We are doing nothing to stop it, and if we don’t stop it in the next ten years, then the world is done,” says Kanav Deorah, 9.

They’re not alone in feeling this way. According to the humanitarian organization Save the Children, students today are up to seven times more likely than their grandparents to experience extreme weather events like wildfires, heat waves, or droughts. An overwhelming majority of schoolchildren today say humans are failing to take care of the planet, with three-quarters of schoolchildren believing the future is not only “frightening,” but more than half saying that climate inaction will spell doom for humanity.

But Patil is not willing to let her students succumb to doom and gloom. We always want to partner every topic with the solution,” Patil says, adding that she often starts each class with some movement and a breathing exercise to help students transition into a problem-solving mindset. At Cragmont, she started a Green Team, where students give up recess to talk to her about what they can do for Earth. Many use the period to problem-solve or discuss efforts to reduce meat consumption or why low-income areas are facing dire tree loss. “We know what we can do to fix climate change and we can even spread the information,” Niknejad says.

In this way, Patil gives students lifelong tools to look for solutions beyond the classroom. “We need to arm and educate children,” Patil says, “and equip them with the tools and capacity to problem-solve and be adaptive.”

“The fact that students can learn about deforestation, which is a primary contributor to climate change, and actually do something tangible as part of their learning experience to address this issue is pretty empowering,” says parent Ana Vasudeo, whose sons, Kavi and Sebastian Vasudeo, are in Patil’s class. “I love that she instills a sense of responsibility in the students as stewards of the earth.”

Fellow parent Dan Gluesenkamp agrees. “It doesn’t need to be ‘The sky is falling.’ Because the most important part is what we’re doing right now to reverse that,” he says. “There’s a huge message of hope there, and I gotta tell you, it’s not just for the kids.”

Looking ahead, Patil is buoyant about what students can do. She started a nonprofit called Green Pocket Forests to bring Miyawaki forests to schools across the U.S. with the International Association for Human Values, a group that has planted over 22,000 Miyawaki forests worldwide and 81 million trees in dozens of countries. Patil’s class is also the subject of a year-long documentary about students taking care of the Miyawaki forests, and the teacher is continuing to advocate for the California state legislature to fund Miyawaki forests in every schoolyard.

“It gives them a chance to feel like they’re doing something to mitigate the climate crisis,” says parent Alisha Graves. In the end, Patil says while it’s commonplace for students and teachers to feel increasingly powerless as the planet warms up, she’s hoping the solution she’s introduced in schoolyards will help students chart a different path ahead.

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