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While global attention is focused on the need to mitigate climate change, it is noticeable that the debate is largely conducted by those with power about what others should be doing about it. As is commonly the case, those who are less empowered in political and economic processes are largely excluded from important decision-making. Through my work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning with those with learning disabilities, I have become increasingly concerned about the exclusion of these young people because of an assumption that they can neither understand the issues nor contribute to the debate (Kolne & Lindsay, 2020; Wei et al., 2013). For that reason, I undertook two sets of activities that intentionally targeted young people at risk of such exclusion.

The first of these was funded by the EPSRC’s (Engineering, Physical Science Research Council) impact acceleration account scheme. I led a team of researchers and academics at the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow, UK) whose work would enhance sustainability in offering a sustainability STEM summer school for young people with additional support needs (ASN). The workshop leaders engaged in workshop sessions to prepare them for working with the participants of the summer school and prepared activities that would show the participants what the academics’ research was about and how it could bring us closer to sustainability. Over the summer holidays of 2021 and 2022, these 10 colleagues ran hands-on workshops for up to 30 young people. Beyond ensuring that the activities would be meaningful to the participants, I consciously looked to dismantle other barriers that were likely to make attendance difficult. We used our funding to pay for buses to bring them to the study centres we used, provided lunch and lent clothing for outdoor activities if required. We hired a professional storyteller to introduce key ideas and terminology through folk tales and a photographer who provided a record of the young people’s activities and achievements, especially important for those who would struggle to share their experiences verbally.

The young people’s enjoyment of the hands-on learning was evident and a series of plenary activities on the final day showed that they had really understood the concept of environmental sustainability. Meanwhile, the academics universally reported that they had enjoyed working with learners who were quite different to the audiences they were accustomed to and had learnt a lot about teaching a lay audience. The evaluation data (currently being collated) indicates that the gap between experts in, and the marginalised from, discussions about climate crisis requires active efforts to bridge it. Doing so enabled us to bring both sets of partners to better understand each other and to discuss how knowledge about technology can be made accessible to potential end users (the so-called ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ elements of technological innovation) (Bhamra et al., 2011).

‘The inference that I draw from these projects is that there is a far wider concern for the environment and the climate crisis than may be immediately discernible. Those who do not volunteer to participate in debate or initiate action are not absent because of an indifference to the issue.’

Following on from the pilot, an approach by a colleague prompted me to run a second activity with young people who had attended the summer scheme. I joined her in running a discussion with the young people on their ideas about what they thought they should be learning about the environment and a further one to find out what young people thought should be done by different authorities. The questions which had been put to the young people were re-worded to improve accessibility and the consultation run face-to-face rather than on-line. It was very noticeable that at both consultation exercises the young people expressed genuine interest in the subject matter and the desire to contribute to the consultations (BERA, 2021 and Dunlop & Rushworth, n.d.).

The inference that I draw from these projects is that there is a far wider concern for the environment and the climate crisis than may be immediately discernible. Those who do not volunteer to participate in debate or initiate action are not absent because of an indifference to the issue. Rather, they face barriers to contributing, often barriers which marginalise them from decision-making and simultaneously make it difficult to take the actions that they know are needed. Meanwhile, experts in matters of sustainability need to be supported and encouraged to reach out to under-represented groups in order to ensure that they too can play an active part in the fight for the future of our shared planet.


Bhamra, T., Lilley, D., & Tang, T. (2011). Design for sustainable behaviour: Using products to change consumer behaviour. The Design Journal, 14(4), 427–445.

British Educational Research Association [BERA]. (2021). BERA Research Commission 2019/2020: Manifesto for education for environmental sustainability (EfES).

Dunlop, L., & Rushton, E. (n.d.). Dicey dialogue: Engaging scientists with public understanding.

Kolne, K., & Lindsay, S. (2020). A systematic review of programs and interventions for increasing the interest and participation of children and youth with disabilities in STEM education or careers. Journal of Occupational Science, 27(4), 525–546.

Wei, X, Wu, J. W., Shattuck, P., & Blackorby, J. (2013). Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) participation among college students with an autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(7), 1539–1546.