For Tamu Lajebo – Dougherty Family College (DFC) second-year and Excel! Research Scholars Program student – sustainability has become much more than stewardship for the Earth. It’s become the key to unlocking a completely new plane of learning.

“Thinking back throughout my school years, I was not interested in certain things and, because of that, I didn’t really know how to learn effectively. Now, I can picture what I’m learning and how it affects me in my life,” he said. “Excel! Research Scholars Program has really taught me to personalize learning, to make it my own. Anyone can learn any subject if you can do that.”

Lajebo’s growth has come hand-in-hand with developing through the mentorship of Excel! Director Cynthia Fraction and School of Education Associate Professor Aura Wharton-Beck, Lajebo’s faculty mentor for his dedicated research project this summer. In fact, how Lajebo learned in the past prompted his area of research.

“When I arrived at St. Thomas one of my professors introduced me to the concept of sustainable development. … I was fascinated by these concepts, but looking back I couldn’t recall much, if anything, I had learned about it in school,” Lajebo said. “I wondered, ‘Are these concepts being taught in [elementary, middle and high] school? If it’s not being taught, why, and if it is, how effectively is it being taught?’”

Those questions sent Lajebo down a path of research that – through Wharton-Beck’s guidance – helped him grow.

“When you’re a younger person working with people with PhDs, you can actually feel like you don’t know anything. She let me find things and learn on my own as much as possible, but really guided me in the right direction and helped me as I needed it,” Lajebo said. “I felt really comfortable any time I needed to talk with her about anything; she provided me a place to be myself and learn.”

Encouraging results

What Lajebo found has left him extremely excited and optimistic about the role of sustainable education in developing young people. Stemming from the 1987 Brundtland Commission Report headed by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, the United Nations has made huge strides around the world, Lajebo found, a timeline of which he laid out in detail for his summer research symposium presentation as part of Excel!

Lajebo also zeroed in on the United States and Minnesota, studying the 2011 launching of the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon School Awards, which award schools on three criteria: reducing environmental impacts; improving health and wellness; and offering effective environmental and sustainability education that emphasizes hands-on, real-world learning, civic engagement, STEM connections and green career preparation.

“This has been just amazing to see [what schools have done and have been awarded for],” Lajebo said. “So much of what [schools] are doing makes it more personalized and not a far-off concept in books; students involved in creating things and are part of it as they learn. That’s so cool.”

That element of personalization, of connecting to what you’re learning, hits home strongly for Lajebo. As he has seen and understood the difference it has made to his own education at St. Thomas, his goal is to influence as many students as possible, including the many first-year DFC students he is mentoring this fall.

“I’ll try to implement these ideas with other students, to give them the tools I’ve acquired through Excel!, as well as encouraging everyone I work with to apply to Excel!,” Lajebo said.

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