Engaging a Community: Green Commuting Challenge
In elementary school, I would get dropped off by car after waiting in a traffic jam full of other students going to school. I was more than a little surprised when I later found out that I could bike to school in less time than it took to sit through that traffic jam.
In 2015, a team of students and teachers at Calgary’s Captain Nichola Goddard School won an Emerald Award for making a similar observation and then pushing their community into action. Their project, the Green Commuting Challenge, succeeded in changing the mindset of students, teachers and parents when it came to commuting to school.
To learn more about how a student-run initiative could engage an entire school and inspire a culture shift in their community, I spoke to the teacher who first led the project, Debbie Rheinstein.
Rheinstein explained to me that the project began with a simple observation. Captain Nichola Goddard was built as a community school, meaning that none of its students had to bus in from outside its catchment area. But despite the fact that nearly all the students lived within two kilometres of the school, many of them were still being driven by their parents.
Since the school wasn’t built with motor traffic in mind, Captain Nichola Goddard was plagued with congestion, unsafe driving, stressed students late for class and idling. When a student from another school was injured in an accident, Rheinstein knew that she and her students needed to make changes to what she saw as a harmful “culture of convenience”.
As a community school, Captain Nichola Goddard was the perfect site to promote a culture of commuting. However, Rheinstein notes that major lifestyle changes are not achieved simply by building “an understanding of students’ ecological footprint … there need[s] to be an external motivator.” This was the motivation behind the Green Commuting Challenge, which rewards students for commuting to school.
In the first year of the challenge, bikes were given to the two students who commuted the most. Despite the big prize, engagement with the challenge did not exceed 30% of the student body. This led to a series of changes that turned the challenge into a successful movement that spread across the school. These changes involved strategizing in terms of incentives, constantly evolving the terms of the challenge and using peer pressure positively to promote the Challenge. These three strategies can be applied to other forms of environmental engagement, even with adults.
After establishing the prizes in the first year, the students and staff behind the Challenge then drastically lowered the value of the prizes but increased their quantity. Instead of bikes, prizes included tickets to the amusement park and cinema as well as pizza parties and donuts, which Rheinstein notes are often more effective at generating student interest.
By increasing the number of prizes and awarding them more to classrooms than to individual students, the team behind the Challenge made it clear that everyone could participate and aim for a reward, not just the most devoted commuters.
While it may seem insincere to have the motivation for action be pizza rather than a concern for the environment, Rheinstein argues that an environmentalist culture still developed in the process. Indeed, over the years, more and more students have continued commuting even after the end of the Challenge.
Five years after the start of the Green Commuting Challenge, students now approach staff at the beginning of the year and ask about being involved before the Challenge is even advertised to them – it has become a part of the student culture and the incentives are smaller than ever.
Evolving the Challenge
While seeing an environmentalist culture grow in a community should be seen as a success, Rheinstein warns against turning a culture shift into a routine. As a movement grows to be more self-sustainable, so too do the risks of individuals no longer thinking about why they are involved. “Students are evolving and diverse … the methods need to be as well,” she explains.
After seeing low engagement in the Challenge’s first year, the team chose to remove registration as a barrier to entry – everyone was involved by default. Furthermore, they added the concept of “Green Commuting Hubs” – places around the community where students met to walk to school together under the supervision of a Grade 9 student. These changes made the Commuting Challenge wildly popular and helped the school to win an Emerald Award that year.
In later years, new initiatives were added as old ones waned in popularity. Through this evolving approach, the Green Commuting Challenge constantly changes in response to student interests and concerns. The most recent initiative, “car-free days,” saw even the teachers leave their cars at home in order to be good role-models for their students. Rheinstein joked that the teachers felt peer-pressured by the students, which underlies another fascinating strategy of engagement.
Much of the Challenge is run by a group of Grade 9 students called the Green Commuting Leadership Team. Aside from planning, partaking in and presenting the Challenge at the Calgary Mayor’s Environment Expo, these students are instrumental in spreading the culture of environmentalism throughout the school. Part of that effort involves subverting that much-hated teen phenomenon – peer pressure.
By having older students direct and promote the project, the team was able to take advantage of the relationships that already existed among students. While Rheinstein is otherwise not a proponent of peer pressure, she explains that “as teachers, we can say things until we’re blue in the face but students won’t make lifestyle changes because of what we tell them, they’ll make lifestyle changes because of what their peers tell them.”
Peer pressure was also used in the switch to group prizes. By awarding prizes to classrooms, students encouraged each other to commute more in order to help the whole class win.
Fighting the “Culture of Convenience”
Using incentives, constantly evolving the initiative, and taking advantage of the existing relationships between students all helped the team behind the Green Commuting Challenge to make their project a success. Through the Challenge, their ideals have become a major part of the culture at Captain Nichola Goddard School. While Rheinstein now works at a different school, she continues to pursue environmental projects with her students and to empower them to take action.
“If kids don’t remember anything else from being in my class, I hope that they remember that these big problems like climate change were caused by something and can be alleviated by something. And for us to just sit around and wait for someone else to figure it out – we can do better than that.”
(Video and Cover Image provided by the Alberta Emerald Foundation)