As environmental issues become increasingly challenged at the federal level, experts at the University of Wisconsin are continually looking for to transition to a clean energy system in a time of political polarization.

As part of the ongoing Weston Roundtable Series — which seeks to promote understanding of sustainability science and policy —  John Greenler discussed Thursday how to encourage and educate students to engage in moving toward a more sustainable future.

As the director of education and outreach at the Wisconsin Energy Institute, Greenler said he mainly teaches from a scientific perspective about the physiological processes of issues like energy transmission and exajoules, or large units of energy.

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But in the classroom, Greenler’s preferred method of education is the “5 E’s”: Engage, explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate.

Instead of evaluating how a student understands a specific concept, Greenler said he looks at how students can approach a broad set of ideas.

Viewing how his students make advances through their learning progressions can be better understood when applied to a subject — like the carbon cycle, Greenler said.

In the first level, common among elementary school children, there is no cycle, but rather linearity, Greenler said. When things like food, sunlight and matches are given to people, animals and plants, events like growth and flames can occur, he added.

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On the other hand, Greenler said, an advanced student can distinguish between matter and energy, follow matter through photosynthesis and think across scales from molecular to global.

On the second level, while students can differentiate between matter and energy and recognize that a cycle is occurring, they still see animals and people as the same, Greenler said. 

In the third level, this changes.

Here, Greenler said different input sources for plants and animals are recognized and people are recognized as a subset of the animal kingdom.

During the discussion, Greenler said 35 percent of students leaving high school are still on the second level, while and 55 percent of graduating seniors are on the third.

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“Only about 10 percent of them can really convey all of the details of the carbon cycle in terms of these various dimensions,” Greenler said. “That’s probably a pretty good representation of the diversity of understanding in the general public as well.”

For Greenler, this is why he views “engage” as the most important step of the 5E’s. 

Especially with the current political climate, Greenler said he uses the first “E” — engage—  to educate his students.

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Despite the increasing polarization of population in the last 20 years, he said he remains optimistic with future transitions to clean energy. 

With emerging collective action within institutions, learning lessons from global policy experience, strong state-wide clean energy incentives and technological improvements, Greenler said there is a lot to look forward to.

“Millennials, students in my classes give me the most hope,” he said. “You guys are the ones who are most willing — more than generations past — to roll up your metaphorical sleeves and make things happen, and I really think that is a significant cause for optimism.”