“Focus on the impact you can make,” says Jelena Milenkovic. And that’s what we did: Our TiME to Seed a Future Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) has nearly 500 registrants. Almost half a thousand teachers across the globe have joined our course through the European Schoolnet Academy. They are learning the essential tools to teach about climate change, biodiversity, and nature conservation in their classrooms. TiME visited the headquarters of the European Schoolnet Academy, next to the European Parliament and we spoke to Jelena Milenkovic, European Schoolnet Academy coordinator.
Dear Jelena, it’s a pleasure to be here in Brussels. The first question I would like to ask you is how do you introduce yourself?
My name is Jelena Milenkovic. I am a project and pedagogical coordinator at European Schoolnet. The European Schoolnet is a network of 30+ Ministries of Education in Europe. As a nonprofit international organization, we aim to bring innovation in teaching and learning to our key stakeholders: Ministries of Education, schools, teachers, researchers, and industry partners.
I coordinate two European Schoolnet initiatives. One is the European Schoolnet Academy, an online platform for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) focused on bringing innovative pedagogical concepts, whole-school strategies, and tools and resources teachers can use in their daily teaching practice.
The second initiative is professional-development opportunities for teachers through in-person training that we organize here in the Future Classroom Lab in Brussels.
Can you tell me if you remember a moment of inspiration when choosing this career path?
I come from Serbia, a small country, which unfortunately, during my growing-up years, had been through several wars and was generally in a difficult socio-economic situation. At that time, there were not so many opportunities for people from Serbia to work, study, or travel abroad.
The only path I could see that could open some doors for me to see and get to know the world was through education. It was clear to me from a young age that, to grow, education was the only way.
So, I was interested in education from very early on. I wanted to focus on the impact I could make, and I followed this path.
It also allowed me to obtain scholarships, travel abroad, work abroad, study abroad, and especially when I was in China for several years, I got interested in education.
I worked there with local NGOs and could also see education’s impact on students and their everyday life. I worked for an NGO focusing specifically on water conservation and the water footprint. Living in China and witnessing the devastation caused by pollution is something that motivated me to educate myself and the people around me on this harm and the steps that we can take to protect our environment.
Do you remember something in China that was particularly shocking?
I lived in Beijing, and sometimes the air pollution was awful. Once, I was going to meet with friends, but when I got out of the metro station, I realized I didn’t know where I was because the pollution was so heavy and thick that it covered all the buildings around me.
Beijing is full of very high, modern buildings, so a hundred skyscrapers surrounded me, but I couldn’t see them because of the thickness of the pollution. I felt very disoriented. It was a very memorable experience.
Living in Beijing, we got accustomed to pollution, but this was the first time I saw nothing and felt very disoriented. It was terrifying to know that this was the air I was breathing, me and 20 million other people.
Do European educational programs prioritize sustainability and climate change?
In Europe, there have been tremendous efforts in the last few years to bring environmental issues to the classroom, and it has been a main priority in the last few years.
We have been working with the European Commission on many projects that aim to bring environmental issues to classrooms, not just to biology and science teachers, but all across different subjects.
On the European Schoolnet Academy, teachers can find useful resources and ready-to-implement lesson plans focusing on nature-based solutions (NBS), teaching sustainability for action (Life Terra), a project about planting trees and promoting outdoor learning, and many more.
At European Schoolnet, we continue to have sustainability as one of the main priorities when it comes to education in Europe, and so far, this topic has been very well received by teachers, and it is something that teachers are interested in exploring more.
In Europe, most of the teachers (about three quarters), claim that they don’t have enough training and they don’t know how to explain climate change and engage students on this issue. How can we change that?
I am sure that is the case, unfortunately, especially considering that it has been a more recent effort to include it in the curriculum. My advice to teachers would be to join one of our online courses. TiME to Seed a Future is one of the courses in which they can understand how climate change impacts biodiversity and why it is essential to protect our environment.
There they will find many activities explaining how to introduce this topic in their classroom. In addition to this course, we also offer other online courses on similar topics.
They can also find many resources and, most importantly, ready-to-use lesson plans and learning scenarios. As we know, teachers are busy, so adapting what they can see in the course to their students’ age or the subject they teach can be an accessible introduction to the topic.
Additionally, there are communities of teachers where teachers support each other, share their experiences, and exchange best practices. They can also connect with teachers across Europe and beyond to work together to bring these topics to their students.
They can be there to support and encourage each other.
We hear many reports from teachers saying that apart from the scientific content, there is also the psychological and emotional challenge of eco-anxiety and how to deal with it. Do the courses you offer help in that sense?
Yes, definitely. Reading the news every day about everything that is going on in the world, it is tough to stay immune to that and not to feel anxious — not just eco-anxiety, but thinking about everything that is going on.
My best advice is to stay informed and approach the topic at the level of your students and based on the subject you teach.
Focus on the positive and not the negative. Focus on the impact that you can make rather than what you cannot change.
Yes, we are all aware of the big industries, and it is hard to change overnight, but we can all be aware of our consumption, for example. If we consume less, it will be better for the environment. We can also be aware of what we consume, trying to go for more eco-friendly products, and there are many changes that we can make in our individual lives to contribute to this fight for our future.
Additionally, there are places in which students can also volunteer; helping and getting involved will help them understand the topic and the power that they hold to make a change.
Additionally, they can participate in fundraising activities: choose whatever is in their local environment, and focus on helping those organizations, for example.
Focus more on working for positive results, be aware of the negative impact of all that is around us, and on what we can do individually, which can bring positiveness to a not-so-positive topic.
The model that we have at This is My Earth, apart from education — nature conservation, crowdsourcing, volunteer-based — do you think it’s promising? Although small, do you think we can have a considerable impact?
As I said, I believe we should focus on the impact that you can make rather than what you cannot change. And the most significant impact we can achieve is through education.
Raising awareness and engaging students in these activities, in fighting for land; it can be beneficial for them to create empathy to connect with nature, other communities, and their peers. It’s also a great way to work with students from different countries, for them to connect.
We are all living in a global society, and we can all focus on making an impact. It’s very easy for students these days to be connected globally, and this can be another way to connect and create a more empathetic world in which we care for each other no matter how far we are; we care for environment and land even if it is not something so present in our daily life.
We can make a positive impact by raising awareness and engaging students in this activity.
If I was a teacher, could you recommend a good podcast?
The podcasts that I listen to are more related to psychology and science. I enjoy Science Vs. It’s a very approachable way to science, and they debunk many myths.
There is a lot of talk about the environment, so that would be a fun podcast on science.
For education, I would suggest you stay tuned: we are about to launch several podcasts within the scope of the European Schoolnet Academy.
We recently launched the Future Classroom Ambassadors Podcast, in which we share authentic stories about the work of the FCL Ambassadors in Europe. The first episode is already out: Episode 1 — New learning spaces in your school | Future Classroom Ambassadors Podcast (podbean.com). Additionally, EU Code Week is a podcast with excellent materials for teachers interested in coding, computational thinking, robotics, and innovation. It brings coding closer to educators in Europe.
Through good use of technology, we can impact society and help governments and policymakers to change their focus.
Lastly, I also want to recommend Scientix TV. It’s not a podcast; it’s a YouTube series in which our science team shares tips and tricks for STEM educators and presents valuable resources and projects in which teachers can be engaged.
This interview was recorded on 4 April at the headquarters of the European Schoolnet Academy.