How Can We Make an Impact on Climate Change? Upper iSTEAM Projects

three students talk with professor

Students meet with UCLA Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy Brian Taylor to learn about reducing carbon emissions

Upper students design and engineer projects to tackle environmental issues and motivate others to action

Young people around the world are becoming vocal proponents for action on climate change. Their passion is no surprise, given that their very future is at stake.

But how can anyone make a real impact on such a large issue? And how do activists and teachers make the effects of climate change relatable without overwhelming?

“You can’t just do one big thing. Lots of small changes are needed.”
— Jace K.

“We have to advocate as a community to have green energy.”
— Laura M. 

Projects that UCLA Lab School Upper II students designed and engineered in the school’s iSTEAM Lab in spring of 2019 offer ideas and inspiration for simple steps we can all take to reduce the carbon footprint of our homes, schools and communities.

The students’ work is an example of UCLA Lab School’s growing commitment to environmental justice, said Principal Georgia Lazo. “Both at our school and in our collaborations with others,” she said, “our priority is to help children develop environmental literacy so they are able to address the pressing issues of the 21st century.”

Discovery Rooted in Rigorous Learning Goals

Teachers began by aligning the learning goals with the Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core Standards for grade 6. Students explored the scientific and social factors behind climate change and then used the design process to create prototypes for tools and products that can make a difference.

Leading up to their projects, the class studied ocean currents, the carbon cycle, early humans, ancient civilizations, and the causes and effects of climate change as well as what others are doing about it. They used principles of design, technology, engineering and communications to bring their ideas to life in the school’s iSTEAM Lab.

“Students this age are really open to using technology and creativity to express their ideas,” said former iSTEAM Demonstration Teacher Ding Kong, who led the inquiry work. “It’s amazing to see what they can do when they have the tools and guidance. And those tools don’t have to be complex. A recycled cardboard box and aluminum foil can become a solar oven.”

“Adolescents are deeply curious about the world around them and want a voice in shaping that world,” added Demonstration Teacher Sylvia Gentile. “Our challenge as educators is to invite them into the process of discovery and support their learning along the way.”

home page showing man walking and empty sky

Heal Our World Website
by Bem, Jace, Rowan and Tyler


web page with image of earth

Eco Media Group
by Aryadini, Bruno, Johnny and Laura


maker space girls sewing clothes

Recycled Fashion
by Djuna, Josie, Samantha and Sasha

thermometer and solar oven

Eco-Friendly Cookbook and Solar Oven
by Abigail, Ila, Matthew and Oona

boy and two girls with spoons made of dough

Edible Utensils
by Alec, Elena and Helena

boy and two girls with co2 monitor

Operation CO2: Monitoring and reducing emissions at carpool
by Juana, Maya and Moises

cloth lunch bag

Alternative Lunch Bag
by Abby, Gabriela, Jerilyn, Noah and Otis

man helping students assemble windmill

Windmill Powered USB Charger
by Declan, Patrick and Sebastian

students working at whiteboard

EnvironBit: Environmentally-Friendly Behavior Tracker App
by Daisy, Charlotte, Noah and Van



Behind the Learning: Inquiry That Integrates Across Subjects

The UCLA Lab School inquiry pedagogy is rooted in a process of wondering, posing questions, gathering information, representing understanding, solving problems and taking action.

Teachers guide the process with in-depth planning and assessment. They start by establishing clear learning goals aligned with rigorous state and national standards — such as the Common Core Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, C3 Social Studies Framework and ISTE Standards (International Society for Technology in Education). Then they plan learning experiences to engage children in building the content knowledge and skills to help them meet these standards. They measure student progress throughout the school year to ensure that students are on the pathway to success.

Along the way, children’s questions, thoughts, and interests influence the teaching and learning. As the inquiry process unfolds, children have many opportunities to explore ideas and concepts in a meaningful context. They develop their capacities to understand, innovate, evaluate, dream, and make the world around them a better place.

Project development with technologist Ravi Gadhia

Interview with filmmaker Nadia Conners

Beginning the process

To begin their projects, the Upper II students looked at many different indicators of a changing climate and potential causes. They read studies about the predicted effects of things like extreme weather, rising sea levels, and loss of habitat to understand what is at stake.


Students read news articles about how people are advocating for better climate policies, how scientists and engineers are trying to tackle the issue through citizen science and design, and how people can take personal actions. Students categorized their findings in their sketchbooks. 

Project Proposals

Together as a class, students brainstormed ideas for action within four areas: advocacy, engineering, personal action, and citizen science. Teachers filtered through the ideas by looking at what was realistic within the time frame for the projects and available areas of expertise. Then students began writing their project proposals, including the group agreements, a description of the problem they were trying to address, a project description, interview questions, preliminary research, and a materials list. 

Learning From Experts

Teachers invited experts and professionals from the UCLA Lab School and UCLA community to be project mentors for each group. The groups talked with their project mentors to discuss their ideas, make improvements, and get a chance to learn firsthand from people in the fields they were exploring.


Every group was required to cite sources and provide evidence to support their thinking. Students drafted research questions and investigated them.

Synthesizing their work, students compiled a list of facts to guide their design efforts, including:

  • 81 trillion tons of CO2­ are released every year.
  • 11% of all emissions are caused by deforestation.
  • 5 million people have already been displaced due to climate change.
  • Living car-free saves 2.6 tons of CO2 from going up into the atmosphere each year.
  • Avoiding one transatlantic flight saves 1.8 tons of CO2.
  • Switching to a hybrid car saves 0.57 tons of CO2 from going up into the atmosphere each year.
  • Eating a plant-based diet saves 0.9 tons of CO2 from going up into the atmosphere each year.
  • Recycling saves 0.23 tons of CO2 from going up into the atmosphere each year.

Learn More: 

Heal Our World Website

8 Ways to Teach Climate Change In Almost Any Classroom

NEA: Climate Change Education: Essential Information for Educators

NASA Climate Kids