SERI living wall brings education to life

Walking into the Sustainability Education Research Institute (SERI), the first thing that catches your eye is its living wall—a floor-to-ceiling display of plant life draped down both sides of a dividing partition between the main area and a small meeting room.

By HenryTye Glazebrook

The experience is like stepping through a doorway to another world. SERI is nestled deep within the heart of the University of Saskatchewan’s Education Building, where it has carved out a home unlike any other on campus. Though it is only made up of a few small rooms and offices, the institute’s emphasis on using reclaimed and repurposed materials as focal points for its green-space headquarters has created an office both wholly unique and remarkable.

McKenzie talks about SERI and the living wall at the University of Saskatchewan.

“We wanted to create a green-designed space that would also be a model for a different way of doing things,” said SERI Director Marcia McKenzie. “It’s not just the work that we’re doing, but also the space we are doing it in and how that exemplifies our commitments to sustainability. All the wood is reclaimed grain elevator wood, including the main feature wall as well as the tables. The metal table fixtures are piping, reclaimed as well. The cabinets are repurposed lockers from a high school, the light fixtures are repurposed from elsewhere on campus.”

SERI is a collaborative unit focused on research furthering the understanding of sustainability in education. The institute was founded in 2012 through $101,000 in funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, with an additional $150,000 in funding from the College of Education.

“Our mandate is to draw together faculty, graduate students and other members of the university and surrounding community who are working on research to do with land place, environment and sustainability in education, to bring them together in a single hub and build on that work moving forward,” McKenzie said.

While SERI is one of several U of S institutions that work in green areas, including the School of Environment and Sustainability (SENS), the Global Institute for Water Security (GIWS) and the Office of Sustainability, what sets it apart is its emphasis on wrapping concepts familiar to these other units inside of an all-encompassing focus on education.

“Whereas SENS is interdisciplinary across many different areas and GIWS is focused on water particularly, SERI is specifically centered on education,” McKenzie said. “It’s the only research centre in Canada with the focus on sustainability in education. All of our activities have those three threads of sustainability, education and research. Those are our niche; they set us apart.”

With the number of students, researchers and faculty members involved with SERI, there are a variety of projects connected to it at any given time. In recent years, the institute has begun hosting a biannual conference, jump-started its monthly Talking Sustainability seminar series and partnered on a new community journal focused on place, land and learning.

SERI has launched several research ventures, including a digital media project looking at Indigenous, newcomer and settler youths’ orientations to place and sustainability. McKenzie describes the study as an “action research project” intended to collect research data, as well as to train youth in digital media skills so they can amplify their own voices and opinions on sustainability issues within their communities.

The current flagship project at SERI is a $2-million Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council partnership grant examining sustainability policies and practices in formal education from kindergarten to post-secondary levels across Canada.

“We just finished collecting data at six different post-secondary institutions and 20 elementary and high schools across six different provinces and territories, to look at how they are engaging with sustainability in practice and then examining that in relation to their policy mandates,” she said.

Prior research projects of the Sustainability and Education Policy Network have included a census on sustainability uptake in policies across all 220 post-secondary institutions, 13 ministries of education and 374 school divisions across the country, as well as a national survey. McKenzie said addressing sustainability issues will continue to become more and more important as society moves forward.

“In terms of critical issues of our times, climate change is one of the most pressing issues we’re facing,” McKenzie said, adding that sustainability is among the priorities recently laid out in the U of S mission, vision and values statement. “Health, migration and all sorts of other associated issues are connected to a changing climate. It’s obviously a very important concern and effective education is key in responding.”