It started with a simple idea. In October 2016, Peder Hill, an art and biology teacher at Gymnasium Draschestrasse, a bilingual school in Vienna, Austria, suggested his students build a whale out of trash in an effort to shed light on the pollution problem plaguing our oceans. The awe-inspiring 16-foot humpback they created is anything but simple, however. “It’s really something to behold,” Hill says of the sculpture, which now hangs above a stairway in the school. “It took them about six months to do it, which is a really long time in anybody’s life, but for a 12-year-old it’s a very long time.”
For the students, building the whale—which involved everything from cleaning, cutting, and connecting items like bottles to gluing and painting them—was a lesson in teamwork, and it instilled in them a deep desire to communicate the threats facing oceanic life to an audience beyond their families and schoolmates.
“After we built the sculpture to bring attention to the issue of marine pollution, we wanted to do more,” explains Hill, a conservation biologist who relocated from Santa Cruz, California, to Vienna after marrying his Austrian wife. As a “Surf City” native, he grew up riding the waves and developed a connection to, and concern for, the ocean—which he says he misses every day. Once in Vienna, he was surprised to learn that most kids he encountered shared that deep bond with the world’s oceans, even if they’d never seen one in person.
Looking for a partner to help his students amplify their message about marine pollution, Hill turned to the United Nations Office at Vienna. Having already done a film project with other students on the U.N. development agency’s Sustainable Development Goals, Hill knew that many of its officials were open to working with young people. “The students were incredibly enthusiastic, so we gave it a go,” he said.
The response was immediate and positive. After meeting with three representatives of the U.N.’s Information Service, Hill and his students solidified plans for the Clean Ocean Summit, scheduled for June 22 at the United Nations in Vienna. The one-day conference, which is open to 12- to 16-year-olds from around the world, will involve representatives from the United Nations and, potentially, other nongovernmental organizations. So far, students from four of Austria’s bilingual schools (which tend to attract an international student body), as well as small groups from Dubai and England, are set to attend.
The summit, titled “The Last Whale,” will feature youth and adult speakers, short films, and focused discussion about how to bring about tangible global action on ocean pollution. Eleven groups of three students each will give a short talk about one potential solution. At the end of the day, the participants will sign a Children’s Declaration on Ocean Pollution—an urgent call to action with a detailed and prioritized list of recommendations, decided by vote at the summit. Some potential examples include strengthening laws, improving waste management, eliminating single-use plastics, finding better ways to share knowledge and resources about ocean pollution, and promoting projects and technologies that help curb it.
As the students prepare for the conference, Hill has worked to allow them “as much freedom and input as possible,” he notes. He is also helping them prepare to teach one another about the solutions and to understand the role that young people can play in lobbying governments to implement change. “The spirit of the entire project, which has grown out of this whale, is to give kids a voice in the narrative about the environment,” Hill says. “Not just a onetime thing, but a regular voice, a powerful voice, to influence politicians and the way things are going.”
The students are understandably eager. “This project has excelled from a small school project all the way to a meeting in the U.N. hall,” says Maximilian Nagl, now 14. “I just can’t wait to be there.” His classmate Lola Tavcar, also 14, echoes those sentiments. She is looking forward to meeting “so many other motivated kids trying to achieve the same thing and, in general, showing how much effort we have put into our masterpiece, the whale, together as a class.”
The students’ dedication to tackling the issue of ocean pollution, and the inspiration they gained from building the humpback, led to the creation of a group called Kids Save Ocean, through which they, guided by Hill, are able to air their concerns. On their website they offer fact sheets and various classroom materials targeted to students, share their plans for the summit, and register attendees.
In the two years since the students attended Hill’s class, Kids Save Ocean has pursued its namesake goal in some creative ways. The teens worked with Austria’s Makeup School to paint their faces as threatened sea creatures to bring attention to the animals’ plight, and they partnered with Haus des Meeres, Austria’s largest aquarium, to plan a whale sculpture installation in one of its halls. In addition, this June, their whale sculpture will hang at the United Nations in Vienna as part of the World Environment Day celebration on the 5th of the month and will remain there through World Ocean Day on the 8th. Hill’s students hope that Austria’s president, Alexander Van der Bellen, will attend and see the whale.
Currently—and Hill stresses that this is only the beginning—the students are working on developing a mobile app called Fatechanger. Targeted to teachers and students, the app will include short animated films, songs, educational materials, maps, and a data entry feature. It will also aim to spark a letter-writing campaign through which students can encourage governments to address marine pollution. Hill notes that the app could eventually be scalable to focus on poverty or other issues students may want to act on.
In the end, he says, it’s all about “the key, simple, profound idea that kids should have a voice.” His commitment to his former students, and his sincere confidence and pride in them, is palpable—and he trusts that they, and kids around the world, hold the key to solving our most pressing issues.
Lola agrees: “Us kids are the future,” she says. “The environment we build now is the environment our children and we ourselves will grow up in.” Maximilian adds that youthful qualities—the natural enthusiasm and creativity that kids have to solve problems—make them ideal advocates. “We usually think outside the box, which is often the better way to go,” he says. “I strongly believe a select few children who know what the best thing for us is should have a permanent seat in every discussion about every single world issue. This may seem far-fetched, yet not impossible.”
Hill admits that the visions and dreams he and his students have are grand—just like their whale sculpture. “But you know what they say,” he adds. “Go big or go home.”
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