7 Jul 2022 News, Primary Science

Bringing Sustainability into Primary School Science

Here’s our primary science and sustainability guide to help you learn where to start making your science curriculum climate friendly.

Kids want to understand what’s happening in the world around them. Following student strikes, COP26 bringing world leaders to Glasgow, and a disastrous global warming forecast from the IPCC, climate change has leapfrogged up the news agenda. Naturally, our students will start to ask more and more about sustainability. What is it, why are we talking about it, and what can we do to help?

As educators, we owe it to them to answer those questions and prepare them for the future they face. In this STEAMWORKS blog post, we’ll introduce you to the challenges you need to be aware of and help you think about what to do next.

We’ll walk you through the main areas we need to address in primary school science, what’s on offer in the latest Department for Education plans and help you decide where to start with your sustainability journey. We’ll also link to all the research and policy papers we’ve referenced throughout, so if you want to learn more make sure you have a read!

What challenges do we face when embedding sustainability into primary science?

Overhauling our science teaching to make it sustainability-focused can be a surprisingly overwhelming task. This section will cover all the areas you might not have thought of, or might already be worried about.

In her recent article on sustainability in primary science education, St Mary’s University’s Dr. Amy Strachan addressed this challenge head on. She outlined the five emerging issues for primary science educators which must be addressed to make our students become “global citizens”.

At the heart this article’s approach is Global Learning, which puts all teaching in a global context and fosters an understanding that students live in a broader global context. They also live subject to global issues, and should be optimistic for a better world.

1) Having good quality science leadership in schools

First things first, there must be a clear science teaching agenda within a school. Strachan notes that when schools applied a global learning approach, they found that science teaching also received more planning, time and support.

In this vein, sustainability teaching works best when there’s a clear line being followed by all members of staff. The successful schools that Strachan looked at utilised a whole school science “vision”. This is where the school’s wider ethos in regards to citizenship was reflected in all programmes of study.

2) Developing children’s substantive and disciplinary knowledge in science and sustainability

Strachan explains that only with “secure foundational knowledge” can students begin to care about the impact of their actions. We can’t expect children to act sustainably if they lack the basic substantive knowledge of the subject.

In order to actually grasp the concept of sustainability, children must have decent substantive knowledge, knowing their facts about science content, and disciplinary knowledge, knowing how to work scientifically.

Strachan saw that once students had a secure foundational knowledge in the issues around climate change they could then start to understand the consequences of human behaviour.

To add to this, Strachan also says we need to empower children to “develop an understanding of how to answer problems that can be solved using a range of enquiry approaches and through secure development of working scientifically skills”. Luckily for us science educators, this is already in the primary science curriculum. It will take work from us to ensure students learn how to use their problem solving abilities in a sustainability context.

3) Sequencing teaching in a way to ensure that scientific ideas learned are applied and aren’t lost

Embedding global issues into a lesson plan can provide context and purpose to learning, but it is important that the actual scientific teaching isn’t lost at the same time.

Strachan reminds us that making a meaningful lesson plan does not involve replanning the whole curriculum, but means thinking about what is taught, as opposed to just how. Sustainability teaching must be used as an opportunity to teach other science subjects, and shouldn’t be taught in silo.

Doing so is important for students to gain a critical understanding of the subject, as well as help them learn how to apply their knowledge to different subject areas.

4) Purposeful selection of a range of teaching approaches

Another issue we must consider is the choice of teaching approaches we use.

An approach to science learning promoting an understanding of global issues surrounding climate change, and giving children a sense of agency to do something about it, must be intentionally interwoven into all science topics.

Providing opportunities for children to develop several working scientifically skills must happen if they’re to gain a broader understanding of the issues and it’s wide reach.

5) Ensuring that teachers have sufficient subject knowledge to assess effectively

Once you’ve got your head around the previous four issues, the fact remains that some teachers may lack the confidence to effectively talk about sustainability.

Primary teachers must link their science programmes of study to the global issues surrounding them. It’s important to make sure these teachers feel supported in the science subjects and in their understanding of global issues equally.

What does the Department for Education’s plan say about primary schools?

So where do we begin to address such a daunting task? One place to look is the DfE, which has prioritised sustainability in it’s latest plans.

In April, the DfE announced their plan for addressing sustainability across the UK education system, called Sustainability and climate change: a strategy for the education and children’s services systems. The first draft was released in November last year during COP26.

In a press release then-Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, said: “education is one of our key weapons in the fight against climate change”. It forms a part of the government’s wider 25-year environment plan and net zero target.

The new policy plan covers teaching, improving school estates and building, supply chains and international initiatives. It spans all age groups, from early years education to vocational training and universities, and it’s headline policy was the introduction of a new Natural History GCSE for secondary schools.

But what we’re most interested in is what it gives primary school science teachers? Let’s see what they have on offer.

Sustainability leads and CPD

The DfE wants all schools to establish a “sustainability lead”. Their job will be “owning a climate action plan (to include curricular and extra-curricular activity, procurement, adaptation and decarbonisation plans)”.

In essence, they’re suggesting each school will have one member of staff responsible for sustainability efforts, insuring that sustainability is present across the curriculum, and that they engage with any new opportunities from the DfE.

The DfE said they will include CPD in the form of carbon literacy training for all sustainability leads by 2025. The policy paper seems to suggest that sustainability leads will then be able to lead training in their own schools.

Building a “Primary Science Model Curriculum”

We’ve already spoken in length about the primary science curriculum– this new plan from the DfE aims to see it strengthened. If it’s half as good as it sounds, that will be a fantastic step forward for primary science education.

At the moment we don’t know a lot about the new planned model curriculum. The initial unveiling at COP26 last year suggested the new curriculum would have a greater emphasis on nature and the recognition of British species.

National Education Nature Park

The National Education Nature Park scheme was first mentioned at COP26. It forms a key part of the new DfE plan.

The scheme will encourage schools to see their playgrounds as nature parks, and invites them to take part in an online digital mapping service. The service will let students log data which says how the park is ‘growing’ and what biodiversity observations they’ve made.

The DfE argue that, as well as reinforcing children’s connection with nature and engage them in the natural world, it will have real world benefits too. It will serve as a measure of the impact of climate change,

In this policy plan, the DfE encourages new sustainability leads to sign the school up to the scheme.

What doesn’t it say?

The plan lacks in details for now- especially the new science lead section and the supposed changes to the primary science curriculum.

We don’t know exactly what support they can expect, or what CPD opportunities DfE will announce. The National Education Nature Park is still out for tender, too, as no company has been found to run the scheme.

So, at the moment at least, it’s a waiting game. The policy paper sets out a timetable which ends by 2023. We’ve been through three new education secretaries in as many days, so the priorities of their successors might change.

What can we do now?

Making sure activities are linked to other key parts of the curriculum can be incredibly helpful for aiding understanding

So we’ve seen that there’s plenty in the pipe line, but that doesn’t help us right now. What options do primary schools have to bring sustainability into the classroom in the short-term?

We can still teach about sustainability without overhauling of the science curriculum we have in place in our schools. We also don’t have to worry about being experts in the subject area, especially with younger students. Very basic steps can be taken to apply sustainability into our existing lesson plans.

Dr. John Siraj-Blatchford, honorary professor at the University of Plymouth, reminds us in his research review that we can use children’s preconceptions to our advantage to help them understand complex concepts.

Children already use schemes to understand meaning. They can understand an electrical circuit as a “rotating” movement of electricity around a wire. They can understand that a battery “wears out” after a while without knowledge of resistance or conductivity. In the same way, we can experiment with ways to teach about sustainability using what they already know.

In a lesson where we’re leaning about states and densities of liquid, why not try to work an environmental element into it? For British Science Week 2022 we posted an oil spill cleanup activity which does exactly that.

Siraj-Blatchford also reminds us that “Almost all the problems we face nowadays are complex, interconnected, contradictory, located in an uncertain environment and embedded in landscapes that are rapidly changing”. In focusing our lessons about recognising interactions between different events, we can given them decent disciplinary knowledge to understand sustainability.

During a STEAMWORKS FabLab, we’re always trying to point out the interrelationships between the activity we’re completing and the context behind it. Our activities are all about art and making, but also about showing how they’re linked to real scientific concepts.

The extra couple of minutes taken to remind students of the real world contexts of their education can make all the difference in sustainability.


STEAMWORKS is a South Yorkshire based not-for-profit organisation on a mission to get more children engaged in STEM and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, maths and making). We help schools and communities provide more opportunities to get kids involved by running a range of outstanding schemes throughout the UK. These include after-school FabLabs, workshop days, teacher CPD and Young Science Ambassadors. We also provide expert advice and consultancy on STEM and STEAM outreach and education.
We firmly believe that it is essential to include design and creativity with science, technology, engineering and maths, to allow children to innovate and create amazing things! In doing so, we can prove that science really is a subject accessible to everyone and help address some of the inequalities present in STEM today.