Cara Augustenborg’s novel approach to home-schooling sees curriculum subjects vie with gardening, baking and learning about our planet, writes
Dr Cara Augustenborg is an environmental scientist, media commentator on climate change, and a lecturer in UCD. She has served as advisor to Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency and contributed to the National Dialogue on Climate Action.
Originally from the States, she moved to Ireland in 2003 to conduct her doctoral research with Teagasc. She lives with her nine-year-old daughter, Eva, in Bray.
“This is a huge opportunity to bring environmental education and nature into the curriculum: all these things that they never have time to do in normal school.
"What we’re being given is the core stuff; math is being prioritised and the reading, writing and spelling is fine, but I don’t speak Irish, so it’s an absolute disaster. I tried, but its hopeless: Eva gets upset and I get upset. Last week, we tried doing everything we’d been given, and I thought, this is just going to kill us if we have to keep doing it.
"What little Irish she’s going to do now is going to be YouTube videos.
“In the first week, we just drifted but she seemed to be getting really depressed; she was wandering in and starting her school work at around eleven and not finishing until the afternoon and then it was getting dark; I thought, this is fine if it’s one or two more weeks, but if it’s going to go on months, we need to get more pro-active.
“We spent last weekend setting up a schedule and it’s been working really well; she’s really happy. She kind of wanted more structure.
She’s an only child, so I think the lack of social contact was really getting her down.
"I’ve set up virtual playgrounds: half-hour zoom calls scheduled with her classmates so they can all see each other and chat.
“What I found most helpful was sitting down with her and saying, ‘if you could design your own curriculum what would you want to learn?’ She was like: ‘I’d want to learn Japanese, and how to bake a cheesecake, and I want to do gardening every single day.’ Today we planted a tomato plant and it was great.
“It’s part of my value system in the same way some people take their kids to church, so I teach her about protecting the environment. In her list of what she wants to learn about while we’re at home is water conservation and plastic pollution.
A marine wildlife expert had offered a one-hour live chat on her Instagram and Eva did that and loved it, and she was firing off all sorts of questions about otters and seals and things. She was happy out.
“Before I had Eva, one of my friends said to me, the limitations of your child’s knowledge is your own limitation; they’re like little sponges for what you know about the world. I’ve done that with her since birth.
"And what I know of course, is environmental science.
"She’s always been really interested in bees so last summer we did a week-long summer school where she was the youngest person to pass her beekeeping exam.
"She’s a certified beekeeper now and she’s really proud of that.
“I’m a single parent. All the other lecturers on my programme are men and quite a few don’t have kids. So I am feeling huge pressure at work; I have to teach my students and be responsive to emails and I have to keep my daughter going and attend to her every 15 minutes.
"I feel enormous pressure right now to keep my paid job going and take on this huge responsibility of home-schooling. I do feel overwhelmed. Her dad is taking her one day per week because I have lectures all day on Wednesdays.
“When it comes to our household, I’ve really mixed feelings about the emphasis put on individual behaviour. You get people who say, ‘I do my part, I recycle,’ and then their carbon footprint is enormous because they live in a badly insulated house.
"My energy has always been put into advocating for system change at a government level; I’m not a poster child for Zero Waste. But I do my best in my own household, with what I can afford. It’s mixed for me, in terms of my environmental impact.
"But I’m very aware of where my impacts are and I’m constantly trying to bring them down.
I really struggle with food: I’ve cut down on flying and gotten an electric car, but I went vegan for two months recently and became anaemic, so veganism doesn’t really suit me. But with Covid, we’ve started growing vegetables, which I never had time for before.
“We sowed some lettuce, I’ve planted potatoes, which I’ve never done before, and I got some strawberries growing. For the first time in a long time, I have the time to invest and that’s feeding back into the home-schooling. Eva wants a gardening break for a half hour every day.
“We live on Bray Head and we have a good-sized garden. We’re just doing a little bit; there’s no self-sufficiency going on, it’s more educational.
"What amazes me about children is that they are so into the natural world. At what point does it suddenly go from all being about bugs and trees to being all about economic growth and GDP? What happens to our values?
"Kids just have such an inherent sense of nature and other creatures and that animals have as much right to be here as we do, and then something changes; is it when we go to college? It’s bizarre to me.
“There’s a temporary effect on carbon emissions right now because people aren’t travelling because of the Coronavirus, but it’s the same kind of drop we saw in the economic crash and that’s not how you want to solve climate change.
"You don’t want it to be in a crisis that emissions happen to go down, because they’ll just go spiralling back up. So I don’t think this is good for climate change in the long term.
“Hospitals are an enormous source of waste and in recent years they had been pushing towards more sustainability – I wonder if now they’re just going, ‘oh no, we don’t have time for that right now.’
“Maybe there’ll be more of a demand for nature when all of this is over, because we haven’t all been consuming in pubs and restaurants and shopping.
Or, when it’s all lifted maybe we’ll all go bananas because we’ve been deprived for so long; it’s really hard to say. I don’t think you can stand up and cheer about the positive effect on emissions that the Coronavirus is having.