Swiss education

The Swiss don’t do things by halves, and confronting young people with the true interdisciplinary nature of science is something they take very seriously. Initiatives by Geneva University are opening the door to new, multidisciplinary educational methods, applied to environmental issues.

In 2003, a project entitled Antarctica enabled Swiss pupils to immerse themselves in an original way in the study of the polar regions and their associated astronomical, physical and biological phenomena. The project was the brainchild of the Passerelle team from Geneva University. Designed for primary school pupils, the adventure culminated in a secondary school pupil, an astrophysicist and a journalist being invited on a trip on board an ice-breaker to observe the total eclipse of the sun in Antarctica. Meanwhile, back on dry land, the children were put into telephone contact with the seafarers, asking them questions about life on board the vessel and what they could see. ‘All of this lent a human dimension to what they were learning about and was really a magical moment that at the same time gave real meaning to the classroom activities,’ explains Sophie Hulo, a biologist and member of the Passerelle team.

The second project, ‘climaTIC-suisse’, is set to run for two years and involves 40 primary school classes and a group of 15-year-old secondary school pupils. By focusing on the issue of environmental change, it aims to build bridges between the natural sciences and the humanities.

For the very youngest, a comic book and special thematic dossiers have been developed as aids to discovering and understanding the world around them. The children were able to test them in concrete situations, by participating in interactive surveys on the subject of wood and forests that gave them the opportunity to put their questions to the experts as well as to members of the general public.

Intercontinental Exchanges

The highlight last March was when the young pupils were able to deepen their knowledge by means of a survey carried out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). They remotely guided two investigators in the field as they bore witness to a complex reality that includes the problem of deforestation as well as that of child soldiers.

During the expedition to Bukavu, photographs and a travel diary were placed on the project’s website every day. ‘This educational experience is a textbook case of how to immerse oneself in another reality, to improve understanding of the links between North and South, between the local and the global, and between the natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences (1).’

Secondary schools have been active too. Since September 2006, five secondary school teachers in Geneva have been teaching a multidisciplinary course based on environmental themes suggested by their Congolese colleagues and that relate to their reality: mines, water, waste, biodiversity, climate change, and deforestation. These five Swiss teachers – of history, geography, physics, economics, law and biology – learned to work together over a 12-month period as they developed this optional course chosen by 11 pupils. They also developed their own cross-disciplinary teaching method on the basis of the substantial documentation provided by the African partners and the Passerelle team.

After a few months devoted to the theory the secondary school pupils embarked on phase two of the project. On the basis of real situations in the east of the DRC, such as a landslide near Bukavu, in the Great Lakes region (Kivu), they are going to try and come up with a “solution” by drawing on the knowledge and tools acquired during the first phase. These proposals will subsequently be assessed in the light of local constraints by Congolese university students. ‘The aim is to make young people aware of the need for a systemic approach – that is, ecological, human and social – to these issues. This enables them to adopt an investigative and research-oriented logic, one that is genuinely scientific.’

This approach is being facilitated by an impressive volume of documents, a database, links with other websites or blogs and the discussion forum on the ‘climaTIC-suisse’ website. ‘We are working with just one class and just a few pupils, which may seem disproportionate. But the material developed is available online and is accessible to all teachers as well as to the general public.’

  1. All quotations are by Sophie Hulo.