Green energy. Sustainable food production. A fairer economy. All these things are within our grasp, but it will be today’s students who, with innovation, creativity and collaboration, will deliver the solutions. But what if they didn’t have to wait to start creating that future? At ZIS, sustainability has been built into the strategic plan – with challenging goals aiming to make ZIS a driving force for sustainability education in Europe by 2030 – so that they don’t have to.
“One thing I love about being in an international school is that students are mindful of the interrelationship of countries and people in a much more immediate way than the kids I was used to in the US,” says Director, Lisa Lyle. “They have lived in lots of places. They have seen abject poverty and incredible wealth. While many have been lucky enough to travel, they are mindful of how quickly the climate is changing what they see. Our studentsare alert in a way that’s important. That means we have a huge opportunity and obligation to do sustainability well.”
Geothermal heating will replace oil heating on both campuses, and we'll maximise the use of photovoltaic panels
By 2030, carbon emitted on the school commute will be reduced by 66 per cent
Education for sustainability will embed principles throughout the curriculum
We'll generate our own energy or procure it from renewable sources only
So, what’s the vision? First and foremost, says Lisa, the curriculum will help students understand how they can make positive change – and the UN’s Sustainable Development goals are invaluable for pointing the way. “They include thinking about the Earth as a biosphere – as the T-shirt slogan runs, there is no Planet B. And the goals make clear that sustainability goes beyond care for our planet. We must also think about society as a whole and the individuals in that society. How do we create an economy that allows life on Earth to be not just desirable for a few but sustainable for everybody? The goals are bold and aspirational, but specific enough to give us a roadmap for the kind of learning experiences our kids need to have to grasp and resolve these questions.”
In November, parents, staff, teachers and students got together for the first ever Sustainability Sprint – an intensive day that moved the needle for sustainability at ZIS. Participants identified three key areas of focus within the Strategic Plan. The first was Academic Challenge and Support, giving students a substantial and interdisciplinary curriculum experience around sustainability, helping them to problem-solve and develop solutions that give them a sense of agency. The second area of focus was Local Impact, Global Reach, ensuring students participate in activities that both anchor them in Switzerland and prepare them to think about the very different sustainability challenges that exist around the world. Finally, participants identified the importance of a Thriving School Community, caring for students’ mental health and resilience: how they learn to deal with environmental anxiety and work with others to make positive change.
Help us grow sustainable minds in the Lower School's edible forest
The Lower School food forest – Switzerland’s first – opened in October 2021, funded entirely by donations to the Annual Fund. It’s a beautiful, largely self-sustaining garden with more than 100 different, mostly edible, trees, bushes, ground cover plants and vines, many of which are wild varieties of familiar foods such as kale, garlic, onion and mint. And it’s a far cry from its humble origins.
“Like many schools, ZIS had a garden. But it wasn’t being used to its full potential,” says Kristie Lear, the school’s sustainability lead. Every year, a teacher and a class would clear it and plant some annuals – then it would become overgrown again. “It never felt integrated,” says Kristie. “When I was put in charge of sustainable initiatives, I wanted a sustainable learning space – a food forest that would help create a mini ecosystem. Annual gardening is a lot of work and usually you get the gains from it in the summer, when kids aren’t here. Designing something that mimics nature is a much more sustainable way to go.”
"Children who have an emotional attachment to a special place in nature are more likely to be stewards of the environment as adults"
Food forests are based on permaculture principles – the oldest way of gardening. “A food forest incorporates the relationships between things in the forest,” says Kristie. “A garden like this shows how a full system works: systems thinking is a big part of sustainability. You don’t disrupt the soil in a food forest garden, for example. You just mulch and compost, like the forest does.”
Of course, the garden is a space for learning: it’s integrated into both science and social studies subjects. But it plays another very important role. “Research has shown that children who have an emotional attachment to a special place in nature are more likely to be stewards of the environment as adults,” says Kristie. “That’s why we also designed the garden as a place to play. We wanted it to be a space for kids who love plants and growing, but for those who will just love being there and having that connection.”
It’s a perfect example of what sustainability in schools can look like, says Kristie. “We need to talk about climate and biodiversity loss – but all those things are problems. It’s time to shift the narrative, helping students to interact with a futuristic model. What does sustainable look like? What does it mean?” The food forest is one answer to both those questions.
“There is a growing challenge around depression affiliated with a recognition that the world is fragile,” says Lisa. “We must help our young people be solutions-focused, engaged, and optimistic – and to do what they can. There’s a strong relationship between taking action and reducing anxiety. Giving students opportunities to develop a sense of agency has real implications for the curriculum and the pedagogy we use in the classroom.”
Grade 10 student Wesley Przybylowic took part in the Sprint, helping to figure out how to integrate stakeholders – students, parents, community members – into a vision for a sustainable ZIS. “It felt really cool to sit down with all these different people and hear their thoughts,” they say. Wesley believes it’s vital for the school to get sustainability right – for this generation and the next. “Before, sustainability was a concept. Now, it’s becoming a reality: we are starting to come together. I think we can set an example to staff and students as well as the community around us.
We may only be one school, but we can still have an effect and show that sustainability is possible. We need to find ways to organise, co-ordinate and achieve this. I feel like we have the capability to do really great things with what we have here at ZIS. And with our international community, we have the potential to make a big difference.”
The ZIS Village Liner offers a safe and sustainable school transport - a very positive step in the right direction.
Shaking up transport – both to and from ZIS and for school activities and trips – is a big part of ZIS’s journey to sustainability. By 2030, ZIS plans to reduce carbon emitted on the school commute by 66 per cent. This will be achieved with a raft of new measures, including a carpooling system, charging points at school, incentivising public transport for the school’s employees, and, crucially, increasing the number of students who travel by public and school transport. And that’s happening right now with the Village Liner service.
Parent Aude Chardon was eager to find a more sustainable way for her son, Maillet (Grade 4), to get to and from school. “I work full-time, so taking Maillet and picking him up was very difficult in terms of timing,” says Aude. “It wasn’t pleasant either; with so many parents taking their children to school, the roads were very busy. It takes longer and it’s very stressful. And I was always conscious that the pollution around the school was not good for children’s health. But I wasn’t comfortable with him taking public transport at his age.”
"The use of public transport has increased by 10 per cent since the beginning of the school year. The community has embraced it"
Then she heard about the Village Liner service – a bus solely for ZIS students. It travels on a set route between Rüschlikon and the Lower School, with one bus in the morning and two in the afternoon – one service immediately after school and one later to allow for students taking part in after school activities.
Now, Maillet can travel with his friends – and take his first steps towards independent travel in a safe environment. “It’s great to know he is on a bus with a driver and ZIS chaperone I can trust,” says Aude. “The bus has made a huge difference to my life!”
Plans are well under way to achieve carbonneutral travel for school activities by 2030. Local integration – using public transport services that already exist – will be a key part, as will using as much public transport as possible within Europe, and carbon offsetting the remainder.
And all these plans are already having an effect. “The use of public transport has increased by 10 per cent since the beginning of this school year,” says Chief Operating Officer Stefan Mühlemann. “That’s a very positive step in the right direction: the community has embraced it.”
Jonathan Kirkwood, Assistant Principal Curriculum for Grades 6-12, is one of those responsible for making sure those great things happen in the classroom and beyond. He says he’s excited by the challenge of integrating sustainability into the curriculum – and he’s not the only one. “A lot of curricula related to sustainability right now is being driven by the teachers involved. That works because we hire teachers who live their values and are driven by their passion. But the next step is to ensure we have a structure that pervades the entire curriculum, so every student gets the opportunity to learn about sustainability. And I’m thrilled by that. For every single year, every subject, we need to be looking for opportunities to advance student engagement with sustainability, so our curriculum is intentional and strategic.”
In Grade 9, for example, the Beyond the Classroom trip in August sees students spending a week in the mountains, helping to maintain the environment. Along with service projects, such as mending paths, they will also see first-hand what they’ve learned about in science: concepts of stability and change, the importance of biodiversity and the ecosystem, or the consequences of invasive species.
It’s a huge project, and Jonathan is keen to ensure ZIS gets it right. To that end, he is working with organisations such as the Cloud Institute and the Robert F Kennedy Foundation to ensure the correct standards and benchmarks are incorporated, and that the definition of sustainability is suitably comprehensive. “The UN definition of sustainability covers the environmental, the economic and the social,” says Jonathan. “You can’t address one without addressing the other.” That’s particularly important in an international school, he believes, where students will take their learning all over the world. “Our students are going to become leaders in various fields. We want them to be highly successful but also know what they can achieve for the common good with that success. Habits are learned: we learn to care.”
We will embed Education for Sustainability through the curriculum for all grades, giving students the tools they need to meet real world challenges now and in the future.
Working together we will, as a community, develop effective and sustainable transport solutions to limit driving and encourage public, electric and electro-hydrogen alternatives.
We will generate the majority of our own energy and procure the balance from renewable sources only. Students and employees will be a driving force for change.
Food from our own gardens will complement locally-sourced produce, while our vending machines will sell packaging-free products.
Our relationships with suppliers will reflect our own sustainability values; we will be a minimal-paper school with a pivot to cloud storage powered by renewable energy.
School, community and student-led recycling initiatives will make all recycling activities effective, creating a waste-circular economy and ensuring we are a single-use plastic-free zone.
Sustainability will be core to relationships with the local community; we aim to become a driving force in building school networks that integrate students and society.
And if you’re going to walk the walk, you must also talk the talk – not a small challenge for a mid-sized enterprise, with a budget of CHF46m a year, 275 full-time staff and around 1,300 students. All those people need heated and furnished spaces, and they need to be able to come to school and go home again. And so, Lisa, Chief Operating Officer Stefan Mühlemann and the team are currently undertaking a detailed energy audit to work out exactly what the school’s carbon footprint is, and how that could be reduced. As Stefan says: “We want to be a responsible institutional citizen that places a high value on being embedded in the local community.”
Transportation, buildings and energy each account for roughly one third of the school’s environmental impact and CO₂ emissions, he points out, and the school will address all three. That will start with low-hanging fruit, such as banning plastic bottles on campus. “It might seem like a small thing but it’s good because it’s tangible, everyone sees it, and its immediately achievable,” says Stefan. Next will come the big, expensive projects, such as replacing the Lower School’s oil heating with geothermal heating, which already powers the Middle and Upper School, and installing photovoltaicpanels for solar energy on suitable surfaces.
It’s an exciting time to be part of the ZIS community, says Lisa – and it’s something every member of that community can contribute to, from students and staff to parents. “At ZIS, families are eager to support sustainability. It helps connect them to the school because they see that we have shared values. It’s about being part of something bigger than themselves – whether it’s the school specifically or just a community of people who want the world to be a better place.”