June 14, 2018

Award winner inspires younger students to sustainability action

Master's student Patrick Duke takes his climate expertise into grade schools

When Sustainability Award winner Patrick Duke started studying at the University of Calgary he thought he’d follow his family and friends into a career in the energy industry. But that plan changed a few weeks in with a lecture in an elective geography class that talked about climate change, global weather and ocean patterns.

“I was super interested and I thought, ‘What am I thinking being a petroleum geologist, I really have to change gears',” says Duke. “After that lecture I changed out of geology to get an earth science degree in the geography department.”

After getting his undergraduate degree in 2016, Duke started a master's in geography and began researching underwater sensors that track carbon moving in Arctic waters. He also started Students on Sustainability (SOS), a campus initiative with dozens of student volunteers who bring their knowledge about climate change to Grades 2 to 12 students around Calgary.

“I didn’t really see the importance of climate change until university and it was an eye-opening experience,” says Duke. “I thought this is something that’s important to me and I have an expertise that I can bring into a classroom.”

With help from the Pembina Institute, Alberta Council for Environmental Education (ACEE) and a Quality Money grant from the Graduate Students' Association, he designed a program and developed a curriculum with plenty of hands-on activities for grade school students to learn about climate action and careers in sustainability.

Patrick Duke shares his experiences with students at St. Ambrose Junior High School in northwest Calgary.

Patrick Duke shares his experiences with students at St. Ambrose Junior High School.

Patrick Duke

ACEE launched the program in Calgary-area schools this year. “Patrick’s idea was such a strong one and the programming fills so many needs,” says Laura Hughes, program co-ordinator, Climate and Energy Education with ACEE. “It was a significant help to teachers to have someone who knows these topics come in and talk about them. Everyone wins in this exchange of skills and expertise.”

SOS volunteers started taking their skills into classrooms late last year. “Sometimes you can just identify natural leaders,” says Dr. Irene Herremans, PhD, a professor at the Haskayne School of Business who works with Nature’s Ride, a group that promotes vermicomposting. “He has great organizational skills and he knew who to contact to start setting this up.”

When in the classroom, Duke likes to talk about riding snowmobiles, being on sea ice and working with Inuit at the Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. The younger students enjoy his stories and are keen to get involved in sustainable action. “They recognize the problems and solutions a lot better than other generations,” says Duke. “At an elementary school one of the kids got up and gave a full-on greenhouse gas explanation. He was in Grade 4; that’s wild.”

Duke, who is planning to start a PhD in 2019, is also planning to pass on SOS to other UCalgary students interested in volunteering, networking and helping inspire younger students.

“In a few years I will definitely be saying I know that guy!” says Hughes. “This is the first story about what he will accomplish in his career. He has so many big ideas around climate change. He’s unstoppable.”