Greening China’s Test-Frenzied Classrooms | Education & Leadership - Waterkeeper

Greening China’s Test-Frenzied Classrooms | Education & Leadership

By: Guest Contributor

Qiantang River Waterkeeper’s River Angels program, one of the first of its kind, offers China’s schoolchildren a chance to get involved in the country’s efforts to improve its air, water, soil, and ecology.

By Katherine Olson, photos by Waterkeepers China

If there’s one thing the Chinese educational system is known for, it’s exams. 

Starting from early childhood, kids in China are inundated with mathematical equations, poems, names of historical figures. They are engaged in years of rigorous academic training leading up to the biggest exam of all, and virtually the sole factor in college admissions: the gaokao. This exam looms, perpetually menacing, on the horizon, pushing the entire country’s education system to revolve around memorization and tests; middle schoolers learn math that I, having gone to school in the U.S., could barely do in college, and it’s normal for kids to be in tutoring sessions until late at night.

In such a rigorous environment, is there space for kids to be kids, to get their hands dirty, to explore? Is there time for learning that develops other skills and mindsets: creativity, innovation, a sense of social responsibility, problem-solving? Despite the challenges and obstacles, Qiantang River Waterkeeper is making this a reality, one school at a time.

Despite the prevailing attitude that children — especially high schoolers — should dedicate almost all their energy to preparing for the gaokao that plays such a critical role in their future, schools and parents alike are slowly starting to acknowledge the importance of providing children with a more diverse array of educational opportunities. Established in 2018, Qiantang River Waterkeeper’s River Angels program is one of the first of its kind, a unique opportunity for children to get involved in the country’s large-scale efforts to improve its air, water, soil, and ecology damaged by decades of massive industrial pollution. 

Modeled after the nationwide River Chief system, in which various sections of a river are assigned community watchdogs who field complaints and monitor for pollution, River Angel teams are recruited from partner schools and are given a river section to patrol on a regular basis. The program gives students a sense of purpose; sharpens their problem-solving and investigative abilities; improves their social skills; provides them with hands-on experience; and lets them develop various other important capabilities that are difficult to gain in a traditional classroom setting. 

Despite having just over two years of history, the River Angels program already has over 95 partner schools in provinces around the country. It has gained widespread recognition for its contributions to local environmental protection efforts as well as its importance as a well-rounded and hands-on educational tool. The program’s work on Sustainable Development Goal #14, Life Below Water, earned it the honor of Outstanding Flagship Project from the United Nations University’s Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability. 

Qiantang River Waterkeeper is perpetually unearthing new, exciting, and technologically advanced ways for students to explore the environment around them and tell a story through data. Students are exposed to endless opportunities for experiential learning, and the program is much more than observing waterways and taking samples. For example, River Angels mixed high-tech innovations with water quality monitoring when they took a submarine robot out for a spin in their local river,  observing underwater conditions and taking water samples. Another exciting opportunity for students is an app that allows them to upload their water-quality findings onto an interactive map, helping them visualize the environmental information they are collecting and contributing to the effective protection of local waterways. 

Many River Angels have had opportunities to be engaged on an even deeper level through technology innovation competitions, experiments, conferences, tours of waste treatment facilities, and various types of interactive training; for example, a mock environmental court session in which students learned how to calculate environmental losses and how to use the Chinese legal system to win justice for polluted rivers. 

The River Angels program offers a mock environmental court experience where they learn about environmental laws, visit the Zhejiang Academy of Environmental Sciences, and learn how to calculate the monetary costs of environmental damage.

The activities of the River Angels extend beyond China’s borders; the program is eager to connect with like-minded schools and environmental organizations in other countries, too. River Angels in China, as well as their discussion partners in Thailand and Cambodia, are in the midst of preparations for a model UN discussion on watershed management in the Mekong River planned for spring 2021. Chinese River Angels collaborated with a newly established River Angels group in Bangladesh to create a “Happy River” mural, which was added to the Qiantang River Seawall Mural, a long-running project of Qiantang River Waterkeeper. 

Thanks to their annual seawall mural painting event, Qiantang River Waterkeeper volunteers have painted a mural wall that is now over 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) long.

River Angels are also an important part of Qiantang River Waterkeeper’s Earth Successor program, which takes experiential learning one step further by integrating it with traveling.  Students have an unforgettable trip filled not only with memories of an exciting destination, but also with new knowledge and skills gained along the way. Earth Successor trips have taken students on exciting and highly interactive tours with local Waterkeepers, education centers, and other partners in and out of China. Trip locations include international destinations such as Hawaii, the Bahamas, and South Korea, as well as scenic and historical locations throughout China. 

At a very young age, River Angels begin to develop thought patterns necessary for future jobs in fields such as environmental management, urban planning, design, and much more. One partner school, for example, assigned students the task of designing a new artificial wetland to replace a plain concrete fountain on their school grounds. Instead of following their usual schedule of test preparation, students immersed themselves in their new task: drawing designs, strategizing with peers, and preparing presentation materials. 

Mixing up the normal study routine helps students engage with their learning and gives them chances to discover things they are passionate about. Both these factors are important for success in the future, yet a lack of passion and interest is something that plagues countless students — regardless of what country they are from — as they prepare to enter the outside world. 

The River Angels visit the Bahamas.

Programs such as those offered by River Angels give students a window to another world outside the four walls of their classroom, and ignite a passion for environmental protection in China’s newest generation. Qiantang River Waterkeeper has gotten an early start on a trend that is going nowhere but up — diversifying education, inspiring students, and giving children back the stomping-through-the-brush, hands-in-the-mud childhood they deserve.