Learning sustainably 

What does „sustainability“ mean at school? Much more than just efficient building technology and waste avoidance. This is demonstrated by the educational collective of vocational schools “Berufsbildende Schulen I” (BBS I) in Uelzen (Germany) and is a flagship for practical everyday sustainability. It is going one step further with its new school building – and is thinking about the concept of “school” in a completely new and sustainable way.

Sustainable learning at schools

Everyone has heard of Fridays for Future. But have they heard of the vocational schools BBS I in Uelzen? Probably less so. But it is worth checking out the small Hanseatic town of Uelzen in the north-east of Lower Saxony in Germany. From the outside, the BBS I looks like a very normal educational facility. But if you look inside, you will be faced with a Europe-wide beacon for sustainability in schools. This is because sustainability means much more than just environmental and climate protection here. It is also about sustainable learning and working, sustainable management and social justice. The school is guided by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. It therefore encompasses quite a few issues and essentially affects all areas subsumed under “school”: learning, teaching, administration and technology, to list just a few keywords. BBS I is now a „Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Vocational Education and Training“ and bears the “Environmental School” title in Europe. It is also the head office of a European network of vocational educational facilities, led by the Head of Higher Education Stefan Nowatschin, the headmaster of BBS I.

School rethought

So what exactly does „sustainability at school” mean? Here are just a few examples: First of all, a sustainable topic is traditionally integrated in all apprenticeship professions, whether insect hotels for carpenters, environmentally-friendly paints for painters, resource-saving drive systems for automotive mechatronics engineers or environmental footprints for all. Students can also learn English with a sustainability theme. In addition, methodological, social and self-competence are on the agenda in German lessons. It is therefore about more than environmental protection, namely imparting self-confidence, empathy and global responsibility to young people.

School partnerships with countries, such as Estonia, Italy, Malta and China, also give students an insight into other cultures. When it comes to sustainability projects, which are on the curriculum in all subjects at BBS I, pupils can collaborate „randomly“, i.e. across different forms of education and interdisciplinary – and work with the school’s partner companies. The student companies HoBaTec and NABU were created in this manner. In the first “company”, HoBaTec, construction engineering and woodworking students based their learning projects on orders received from outside – like the trainer’s dug-out for a sports club. In the latter, students are producing bat boxes, among other products, from local wood for the German Nature and Biodiversity Union (NABU). If it were up to Stefan Nowatschin, the concept would be imitated Europe-wide and even worldwide. In 2016, UNESCO invited him to the World Climate Summit in Marrakech and to the opening of the 1st Chinese Industry Exhibition in Shenzhen. He has a clear conviction: „It is not just the curricula; everything, right up to the school buildings, needs to be modernised in an exemplary fashion in view of the 17 United Nations Sustainability Development Goals.“ The BBS I was previously denied approval to build the appropriate school building. Now modernisation has been on the cards. The reason: a school building at another site is outdated and cannot be renovated. The students and teachers need to move. Two sites are to become one. BBS I and II will merge to become one vocational college campus – one that needs new sustainability-based buildings.

Form follows function

But what should a BBS campus look like if it is to fulfil preferably all aspects of sustainability? One thing was clear: form should follow function. Unfortunately, it tended to be the other way round right up to the 20th century with schools and colleges resembling juvenile detention centres and military barracks – with corresponding consequences for teaching. Therefore now, form follows function. And at this point, everyone involved with the school took a very bold step: they wiped the slate clean, tabula rasa. In guided workshops, teachers, students, administrators, training partners, parents‘ representatives, etc. asked themselves the question: If we can really start from scratch, what is a sustainable school, or what should a sustainable school be for us? Does it need a timetable, strict division of subjects, separation of vocations? Does it need classrooms or rather learning spaces? What can be shared, what can only be used alone? „The teachers were very bold and completely turned their usual teaching concept around. We have never experienced something in this form before“, report architects who took over the moderation of the "planning phase 0". The architectural firm was brought in by the school to provide impetus and advice. Hohenloher and Festo Didactic acted as specialist consultants.

After many workshops, it became clear: there would be radical methodological changes, which, in turn, would have a fundamental influence on technical and structural planning. Here are just a few examples of the changes. When there is a top-of-the-line digital infrastructure, teachers and students can access completely different media, and teach and learn in a completely different way. Traditional teacher-centred instruction becomes a thing of the past because access to the digital learning environment is not limited by time or place. This makes more open forms of teaching and learning possible and traditional teaching times can partially be done away with. Students learn in a more self-organised manner – fully adapted to their individual abilities. This, in turn, requires completely different, flexible learning spaces for small groups, individual learning, „normal“ classes etc. The rooms are not strictly divided according to subjects, but rather are partitioned into different zones according to their optimum use and can also be combined. To make this possible, the services supply to these rooms is provided by systems suspended from the ceiling. The mobile interior furniture can be arranged flexibly and independent of the supply connections. The learning material is also well organised and mobile. All of this together, in turn, enables synergies to be used, both in terms of the use of the space as well as the use of the equipment.

Learning future

Another question in the workshops was: what will professions still being taught today look like in the future? Will they still exist? What skills will be needed? The answer: there will not be a strict division of subjects. Instead, related subjects will be combined in groups in the individual departments. A new type of technical space is to be developed that will introduce the apprentices to interdisciplinary future technologies, such as robotics, 3D printing, virtual reality and laser technology etc. to equip them for the future. But of course, there will also be modern workshops. However, to ensure that several departments can access them easily, each workshop is „enclosed“ on two sides by different classrooms in the new building, so that every classroom has access to it and can use it.

The technology installed in the building complex was also to be pioneering and sustainable. Passive cooling and ventilation minimises the need for technical equipment, at the same time saving energy. Resource-saving and recyclable materials are to be used, paved areas renaturalised. The roofs will be planted, creating an evaporation surface – the desired side effect: this would provide each floor with a view into or out onto green planting. Everything is bright and lets light in. One thing is clear: the concept is future-centric and will most certainly catch on.


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