Chris Carlton and Ian Matheson are pre-service teacher educators in the Faculty of Education who have taken on a timely challenge as part of their work at Queen’s – finding a new way to get elementary school children excited about sustainability. Their goal was to create a fun, hands-on, school-wide project that would also show the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) in action. And this is where the worms came in.

Vermicomposting is a natural process that uses worms to convert organic materials traditionally viewed as waste into a nutrient rich soil for plants and crops. Soil health weaves itself through seven of the UN SDGs, in particular with SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities.

After ordering a kit from the Box of Life in Ottawa, Carlton and Matheson redesigned the setup to suit their needs. They also considered how to bring in other disciplines and connected with colleagues at Smith Engineering. A micro bit sensor was coded that monitors moisture and temperature providing students with the opportunity to learn about these factors and engage with scientific data through graphing, controlled experiments, and research.

Their STEAM outreach project is being piloted at a local school this fall. Every student at Winston Churchill Public School in Kingston will learn about and engage with vermicomposting in various ways. Carlton, Matheson, and team built 15 new boxes and then took them apart for students to put back together. Students then prepared the habitat by bringing in leaves, newspaper, and cardboard for bedding before the worms were introduced. Carlton and Matheson have arranged to pick up food scraps from Queen’s Hospitality Services and take them to the school to get the process started before the students take over. 

Creating a sustainability cycle

Carlton and Matheson stress that students learn best through experience and keeping them engaged about how they can contribute to advancing the UN SDGs is key.

“Many of us remember a five-gallon pail with worms and scraps in our elementary school classrooms meant to teach us about composting and nature, but it often began to stink and was eventually tossed,” says Carlton. “The Box of Life design and the version we use allows for better air circulation and the soil maintains its integrity so that the project can continue indefinitely as students continue learning about sustainability.”

box of leafs and matter

The boxes produce a significant amount of worm castings, a potent fertilizer, and the hope is that eventually students will grow vegetables using them and then the food scraps from those vegetables can go back into the box and the cycle can continue again and again.

“By showing students there is something they can do right now to be sustainable, they are able to see the impact they can have,” says Carlton. “It’s not just about vermicomposting, but instead about having an experiential project that demonstrates connection and relevance to global initiatives. The UN SDGs are designed to bring people together to improve life; they are the blueprint for making the world a better place and such a great platform to build a school-wide educational project.”

The vermicompost project is just one of many examples of initiatives and work underway at Queen’s that is aligned with advancing the UN SDGs. Part of Dr. Heather Aldersey’s role as Special Advisor to the Principal on UN SDGs is to highlight these stories, raise awareness, generate connections, and inspire action.

“There are so many examples of Queen’s students, faculty, and staff doing such exciting and interesting work that engages with the UN SDGs and it’s important to collaborate and support each other as we strive to achieve these global goals,” says Dr. Aldersey. “I want to highlight these activities and projects and then take it a step farther by showcasing accessible resources and providing real-life actions people can take if they are motivated by a particular story or goal.”

Connecting young people with research

Carlton and Matheson are planning to come up with other projects that embeds UN SDGs education within it and like this one, brings in multiple subjects and opportunities for collaboration. They stress the importance of language and how vital it is to get students involved in research early on, so they begin asking their own questions and sharing their ideas.

“The UN SDGs are an amazing way to connect with people who are likeminded, and we are amazed at the amount of innovation that can come from new ways of thinking and talking with young people,” says Matheson. “We brainstormed this project with 216 teacher-candidates who put together rich resources for kindergarten to grade 6 teachers to show how vermicomposting can tie in with a variety of subjects. Teachers can engage with this project to the degree they are comfortable, and we will support them however we can.”  

The UN SDGs help to channel our sense of social responsibility and many members of the Queen’s community are making an impact with various projects and initiatives. The university’s commitment to advancing these global goals is evident by the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings, based on the UN SDGs, where in 2023 Queen’s ranked third in the world and first in North America out of more than 1700 universities. More stories about students, faculty, and staff at Queen’s who are doing this work of advancing the UN SDGs and the Queen’s Strategy will be profiled on the UN SDGs at Queen’s page in the coming months.

 To participate or share a story, please fill out this form.


Learn More about UN SDG 11:

Learn about processing organic wastes using earthworms:

Take action:

Learn more about all 17 UN SDGs on the UN’s Student Resources page and what you can do to get involved.

Article Category