Course Spotlight: Global Sustainability by Design

By Gina Gelber and Noëlle Nakaoka ’20

Three Tracks; One Mindset Toward Doing Good

Forty-four Punahou ninth graders were challenged to take their feet out of rubber slippers and figuratively slide them into boots made from polar bear and seal skins to support a community living on Earth’s second most northerly town: Qaanaaq, Greenland. This unique experience was part of a class within the Global Sustainability by Design (GSD) curriculum, focusing on Place, Perspective and Partnership. 

“Our GSD program empowers students with the skills and the mindset to take action for a better world,” says Rachel Navarro, Academy social studies teacher and GSD coordinator. “We leverage the framework of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for students to explore critical issues facing their generation; connect global and local matters; and support their development as thoughtful and creative innovators.”

GSD courses are interdisciplinary, drawing from diverse fields, including engineering, art, public policy, literature and science. The curriculum incorporates project-based learning and design-thinking principles to help students formulate creative approaches around complex sustainability challenges.

Students in the ninth grade can tap into three different GSD tracks: Place, Perspective, and Partnership; Science and Engineering for Sustainability; and Product Design for Sustainable Entrepreneurship. There is also one GSD course option available for 10th graders called Asian Studies, which earns both English and social studies credits.

Empathy; Not Sympathy

The GSD program has a rich tradition of scouring the globe to create meaningful educational experiences. The Place, Perspective, and Partnership course met that tall order with a helping hand from Luke Center for Public Service, which facilitated a partnership between the class and Race4Good® Global Youth League – an initiative that challenges international students, educators and business leaders to generate ideas for uplifting communities in need. 

Students in the course connected with the people of Qaanaaq, who have lived in some of Earth’s harshest environmental conditions for centuries. However, climate change is challenging their way of life, according to Aleqatsiaq Peary, who was born and raised in Qaanaaq and is a hunter by occupation. 

As part of the curriculum, Peary regularly video-conferenced with the class to ideate new angles around critical issues, including: How to build sustainable roads on shifting ice sheets? How to dispose of waste when the ground is frozen year-round? How to sustain plant life when not one single plant can survive in the North Pole?

Maya Gaudiano ’26, who was enrolled in the class, says she had to draw from a broad array of subjects to drum up creative solutions for the project’s challenge of health and well-being – she also had to put herself in the shoes of the Qaanaaq people.

“It is important for our students to realize that the ability to be of service to another person or community is a privilege,” says Dani Goddard, director of Luke Center and point of contact between Race4Good and Punahou. Goddard also helped to build and teach the curriculum to prepare kids for the challenge. “As they interact with people living in a completely different environment and participate in this program, we aim for them to understand this privilege and be able to connect with the world empathetically, not sympathetically,” she says.

“It turned out to be a perfect fit for the GSD: Place, Perspective, and Partnership course and we feel very lucky that our ninth graders got to participate in this very unique opportunity,” Navarro says. This is the second time the School has partnered with Race4Good. In 2022, Punahou students participated in a challenge to support a remote village in Nepal.

“Our big focus is to get students to drill into the complexities of global sustainability issues, which often means looking at politics, economy and history.”

– Eddie Kinnear, Academy Design Technology and Engineering faculty

Creating Interdisciplinary Experiences

The GSD program was launched four years ago, as a joint venture between Wo International Center and Design Technology and Engineering (DTE). 

“The curriculum was created by a consortium of creative teachers from various disciplines, including English, social studies, science and engineering,” says Paula Arias, director of global programs at Wo. “We are grateful for their lasting contributions.”

The program’s interdisciplinary roots are evident in GSD’s Science and Engineering for Sustainability track, where student projects can range from aquaponic gardens to clean energy systems. “Creating products is just the first layer of what we do,” says Eddie Kinnear, Academy Design Technology and Engineering faculty. “Our big focus is to get students to drill into the complexities of global sustainability issues, which often means looking at politics, economy and history.”

One of the products that students developed was a seed-planting robot, to help regrow forests that have been over harvested. 

“The key for us is to find a sustainability need, develop a product, and then explore ways to deploy it,” Kinnear says. “Say we create a water filtration system for a remote village, we then ask ourselves important questions, such as: How will we scale it? Who will pay for it? How will we distribute it if, let’s say, it is going to an area that is rife with corruption, poverty and socio-political struggles?”

Project-Based Learning

For their part, the students in the Product Design for Sustainable Entrepreneurship track have ample opportunities to express their creativity through hands-on projects. “This course challenges students to work through the design process. They research and examine current issues to better understand and empathize with the end user,” says Erik Swanson, Academy social studies teacher. “Then they define the problem that needs to be solved. After that they ideate several possible solutions and get to work in the design lab to fabricate, prototype and test their designs.”

For instance, one course examined the issue of youth homelessness in Hawai‘i. “We took a local topic and connected it to several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – No. 1: No Poverty; No. 2: Zero Hunger; No. 3: Good Health; and Well Being; And No. 10: Reduced Inequalities.” Swanson says. “It was a powerful experience.”

As part of this project, the class interviewed Carla Houser, executive director of Residential Youth Services and Empowerment Hawaii – an organization that helps local street youth to move beyond homelessness – to debate the safe zone policies. In the lab the students then completed a project in which they designed and built outdoor stoves to connect with our learning in the classroom – and to strengthen their skills in computer-aided design software and lab tools. 

The GSD portfolio of courses has been going strong since its inception – and now has a significant milestone to celebrate. “The program is graduating its first cohort of seniors – students who enrolled in the inaugural GSD courses as ninth graders. We can see the positive impact that these experiences have created for their developing mindsets,” says Taryn Loveman, director of DTE. “Many have chosen colleges with interdisciplinary programs, which will allow them to continue with the work they started around sustainability at Punahou. This is powerful to witness because GSD is about creating mindsets that contribute to a better world.”

A group of students in the Science and Engineering for Sustainability course worked on developing a seed-planting robot, to help regrow forests that have been over harvested. In addition to delving into design, this GSD track explores questions around politics, economy and history.

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