Inside a Minnesota high school where climate change is the focus

Inside a student conference day at the School of Environmental Studies
A crowd listens to a student presentation at the School of Environmental Studies in Apple Valley, Minn.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

The School of Environmental Studies is no ordinary high school.

It's tucked away in the woods on the edge of Apple Valley, on the grounds of the Minnesota Zoo. There are no sports fields, but there is a pond right out the front door where students learn to paddle and study the nutrients in the water.

The curriculum is different too: It's laser-focused on environmental issues, especially climate change.

"If we look at what are the main environmental issues today, climate change has to be number one," said teacher Billy Koenig.

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At many schools, climate change education can be glazed over quickly or skipped altogether — teachers have loads of other topics to cover.

School of Environmental Studies students appear to think about climate change every day.

"Here, we kind of learn about everything that goes into [climate change]," senior Carly Zielinski said. "It definitely gives us a unique point of view here. It connects us more with the issue it makes us want to care about it more."

Several students went to Poland last month to attend COP 24 — the United Nations' international climate conference.

Abbigale Helke, an 18-year-old senior, said she's interested in a career in conservation and biology. Attending COP 24 allowed her to see what environmental work looks like in person, she said.

"Seeing how it worked politically is important to understand how I could take what I learned, once I get into my field of study that I'm interested in, and how I can present it to people [so] they understand that we do need to act to preserve the things that we have," Helke said.

Climate change pressing for Helke and her peers. They see their future at stake. Scientists project a grim world for the adulthood of today's students, including water shortages, major heat waves and widespread health effects from a warmer, wetter climate.

Helke referenced the recent U.N. climate report that says major emissions cuts are needed by 2030, or drastic climate change effects will take hold.

"If we can't do anything after 12 years, that's not that far in our life. What about the rest of our life?" Helke said. We definitely have feel that urgency that we need to do something now because otherwise. Our lives could be fundamentally changed."

Listen to the entire Climate Cast segment on the audio player above.