Warren Lake has been teaching natural sciences for 18 years, but he sees a greater need than ever for students to talk to each other about environmental issues in Alberta.

“In Calgary there’s a real disconnect between kids and their natural space,” he says. “We have a generation of kids who have a nature deficit. I’ve taken kids on hikes who have never been on hikes before. They live in Calgary and have never been to the mountains.”

Lake also believes that the disconnect between youth and their environment is widening. This past year, he took students on a hike through some hills — a trek he has done for years as a part of a field trip — and found that many students struggled to navigate the steep trail. They just couldn’t get down.

“This is probably the first generation of kids who have never played. They literally couldn’t negotiate a downslope.”

But Lake has a lot of faith in this generation. In fact, he believes that many of them will really impress you if they are given the chance to talk about what they know.

“One of the things that we always try to look at is to give kids the opportunity to mentor and share with like-minded people … A lot of this work is done in isolation. This allows people to see that they’re not isolated and that there are lots of other people who care about these issues.”

One such opportunity came about with the help of the Alberta Council for Environmental Education: with help from the Community Fund for Canada’s 150th, they created 150 Ways Schools Show Climate Leadership, a youth conference, where students shared ideas about how to make their schools and communities greener.

“They were totally focused and excited to be there, and really proud of the work they are doing,” says Christina Pickles, program coordinator for ACEE. “They could share all kinds of ideas and knowledge between different schools.”

If the students bringing back knowledge and enthusiasm to their schools is the first step, the next one is to bring it to their communities.

“I think the takeaway is that these students see that these projects are not just one shot in the can,” says Lake. “The students see that the work that they’re doing is to invest in their future. The ideas they’ve started with me are leading to postsecondary education.”

Dozens of students from Lake’s program have gone on to work in forestry, water management, and various other conservation roles.

Another important component of the “150 Ways” gathering was that other community leaders were on hand to see what their local youth were doing to help solve environmental problems. Even better, they listened.

“The dialogue has changed quite a bit in Alberta lately,” says Pickles. “The fact that we had school trustees and two MLAs there, we had some good representation from larger groups that make some pretty big decisions for schools.”

It is this combination of high-level and boots-on-the ground perspective that often brings about change. But these conversations cannot always happen organically.

“Those conversations need to be put together,” says Lake. “It’s hard to find venues that put that many people in the same room. You put those groups together and it’s amazing.”

If blazing the trails of environmental action is difficult, at least this generation will not be walking it alone.