It all began thirteen years ago in a teacher’s room in Eastern Finland. The Internet had arrived and the school was one of the first with a high speed connection. The school was in Joensuu, a city well known for its forestry know how. Inspired, this teacher embarked on a mission to connect children from around the world with sustainable development as a core mission. Today there are over 150 countries in the ENO (Environment Online) Network. Together,the kids from the ENO schools have planted 11 million trees. There is lots of enthusiasm and 89 million trees to plant before 2017. Come meet Mika Vanhanen, the classroom teacher with a dream who is now tireless father and biggest champion of ENO.
How did you have the courage in a relatively small town in Eastern Finland to come up with such a major global ambition?
It all began between classes. I was discussing with another teacher about the idea of forming a network of schools. I have always wanted to connect students from different parts of the world. The environment is something that connect us all, so it felt like a natural thing to do.
The initial dream was quite humble: to enable the student’s interaction with other students, especially to students from less developed countries where connections were more scarce. We wanted kids to think of themselves as global citizens. But thirteen years ago I did not imagine ENO could be this big.
Technology is an amazing thing: you can be anywhere and come up with an idea that can be of use in other places. Joensuu is also a great city to have kicked off ENO. We have the Forestry Institute from the University of Joensuu. We have worked very closely with them since the beginning.
The 100 million trees ambition came actually much later, in 2008. I am a runner and I did a 100 km race in 2006. I promised that if by 2017 with plant 100 million trees I would run another such race.
The number is important but the most important thing is the process: that we all go for it!
How does ENO actually work?
We design certain course work to study during the year: like forestry, water conservation or climate change. We encourage schools to study these topics together. To keep the level of activity we try to keep it interactive and set goals, like tree planting days. That makes kids motivated and also takes them off the classroom and close to their local environmental issues.
ENO is founded on a voluntary basis. There are coordinators in each countries and it is their role to keep the dialogue fluid and support the schools. I have met maybe 20% of the coordinators but I remember most of their names. Some of these coordinators are teachers, some work in Ministries of Education, Health or Environment and some are educational experts.
We started with 50 schools in first year. Today 10 000 schools in 157 countries participate.
Do you still teach in the classroom?
I was a public school class room teacher til 2 years ago. I took a sabbatical to give ENO a push. Now I am at a crucial point where i need to decide whether I return as a classroom teacher or keep running ENO full time. It will depend on funding. I still want to make this bigger.
I miss the classroom but I visit many schools constantly and I am in dialogue with many teachers. ENO demands someone full time, so this is why I would like to focus on this going forward.
You talk about three foundations of success for ENO: technology, structure and empowerment. What do you mean by these?
ENO is enabled by technology. Thirty years ago we did not have the possibilities to connect the world in this way. Thanks to internet, email and social networks we are able to connect constantly and on real time.
By structure I mean grass roots. This is an organization without hierarchy. I am a teacher and so is everyone. We are all at the same level. Teachers feel that they are equal contributors. We can make a difference together.
The most important thing is motivation. This is what I mean by empowerment. This is of course deeply connected to the structure I just described.
How many people work for ENO full time?
We have an ENO Network Association since 2009. There are a couple of voluntary workers plus 70 members in the Association. Local experts, such as from the European Forestry Institute are contributors.
I read one of your texts where you say you believe in exponential learning and progressive enquiry. Tell me what you mean.
The most important thing as a human being is to find your limits and overcome them. Curiosity is really important. You have to be brave and find different dimensions in teaching and learning across the curriculum. One should look at an issue from different angles, whether it is through art or science. The environment can be looked at from all areas: English, Biology, the Arts, Geography, History, even Religion. When you do, you learn and you do mistakes. Learning by doing is the best way to learn. Progressively you can learn more and more as you look at things from different angles.
How is ENO influencing teaching methods in other countries? What responses do you get to your methodology?
In the beginning we used mainly internet and computers. Through the process I have learnt that hands on activities are the most important. I have enquiries from Asia and Africa about this. Active involvement of students, teachers and local community is maybe a new approach for many countries. We like to involve cities administrations in the environmental learning.
Finland’s education system tends to come quite high in education charts in the world. How has being a teacher in Finland supported you in developing this idea?
It is very easy to be a Finn when you are a teacher! Other countries recognize that we are high in the PISA results and so there is credibility. On top of a high level of education we are an objective country. We love peace in Finland and I have always felt supported. Many countries respect that. It was a pity we did not manage to get into the United Nations Security Council!
I heard you wanted to be a composer, a musician. Do you integrate music into ENO?
Yes from the very beginning. I have composed some songs to support our message. I love music.
What do you play?
I play the piano, I have sung in choirs and have also conducted. I have a personal project outside ENO. I am hoping to release a collection of songs these year. The songs are about friendship, getting old, love and even about the life of a bottle.
Where do you get funding from?
We have had funding from the European Commission, the Ministries of the Environment, Foreign Affairs, Education and Agriculture. The city of Joensuu is also supportive. UPM and some other private companies have support us too. Getting funding is an important activity because it is difficult to get long term commitments. We have an Advisory Board that supports us with a strategy for permanent funding. The chairman of this board is Sirpa Pietikäinen, a member of parliament.
So if I am a school in say, Mexico, how do I get involved with ENO?
You must get in touch with Hortensia! Every country has a coordinator and you can find details about that in our web pages.
Where do you get your inspiration?
From people! I am in touch with so many people every day and I get inspired mostly from them. (The primatologist) Jane Goodall, one of our ENO members is a great inspiration. My family, my parents, my friends around the world. We support each other.
Which living person do you most admire?
People who work for humanity. ENO is not only environment. It is peace and solidarity as well.
Do you have a favorite fictional character?
Yes, Frank the frog from ENO!
What is perfect happiness to you?
To love and be loved. To live in a peaceful place where I have clean nature and my friends, like here in Joensuu! I am perfectly happy!
Where do you get all that energy from?
Running, playing music and people. I get a lot of energy when I see people are motivated.
Do you have a life motto?
Our coordinator from ENO Israel quoted St. Francis of Assisi and now I do so too: do first what is necessary, then what is possible and suddenly you are doing the impossible!
Mika and his ukulele
As we go to print, Mika is heading towards Act Now! 2013 which happens 27-30 May in Joensu. Find out more:
Act Now! is a biennial conference for schools, children, youth and stakeholders, organised by ENO Programme Association from May 27-30 in Joensuu. In 2011 the focus was on forests, in conjunction with the celebration of the international year of forests. About 4000 students and teachers from 60 countries took part. Act Now 2013 will focus on water, to celebrate the international year of water cooperation.
Forests and tree planting will also be visible in the conference. In the Rio+20 Summit, ENO’s commitment of planting 100 million trees by 2017 was highlighted in the overall summary of commitments, out of 700 pledges. In addition to nature activities, a strategy symposium for 100 Million Trees campaign and water seminar will be organized, in co-operation with ENO Academic Supervisory Board. Representatives of ENO Green Cities Network will be invited.
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