Bringing UNSDGs and Entrepreneurship into Oita’s Virtual Classroom

un sustainable development goals United Nations Sustainable Development Goals; reprinted with approval of the United Nations.

The following is Part 2 of a two-article series on Stanford e-Oita. For Part 1, please go here

Stanford e-Oita is an online course for high school students in Oita Prefecture in the southwestern island of Kyushu, Japan, that is sponsored by the Oita Prefectural Government. Launched in fall 2019, it is offered by the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE) in collaboration with the Oita Prefectural Board of Education. SPICE is grateful to Oita Prefectural Governor Katsusada Hirose whose vision made this course possible.

Note: The content of this publication has not been approved by the United Nations and does not reflect the views of the United Nations or its officials or Member States. 

Stanford e-Oita was launched in October 2019, soon after the Climate Action Summit at the United Nations. Over six million people marched in protest all over the world. It was another wake-up call to global warming. Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg’s UN speech on the environmental crisis addressed the world, but resonated with the youth in particular, who made up many of the 5000 protesters at rallies throughout Japan. A high school student herself, “Greta-san’s” UN address also spoke to high school students throughout Japan including those in the smallest of towns in Oita Prefecture.

With a population of a little over a million, Oita Prefecture is located in the lush and mountainous island of Kyushu. It’s known for its onsen (hot springs) which bubble with organic minerals from the rich, volcanic deposits below. Steam rises from onsen towns like Beppu City as well as neighboring Yufuin in Yufu City at the foothill of Mt. Yufu. Stanford e-Oita students are from 15 high schools in Oita Prefecture. They are from the southern towns of Tsukumi and Usuki, known for their stone Buddhas. They are from Nakatsu and Usa, home to the head Hachiman Shrine, along the northern coast. They also come from the historic cities of Hita and Taketa further inland.

My reflections on the course follow, interspersed with comments made by students in their online discussions, in their final presentations, or in evaluations that were used for assessment, collected by Mr. Keisuke Toyoda and Mr. Hironori Sano of the Oita Prefectural Board of Education. Both teachers attended my class as well as the four days of final student presentations.

This year’s inaugural cohort focused on U.S.–Japan relations, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs), and entrepreneurship. The six-month course ended in April 2020, just as the world began to lock down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To first- and second-year high school students, the 17 UNSDGs can seem broad and a bit intimidating, but my 30 Stanford e-Oita students reframed unfamiliar concepts like “Sustainable Cities” and “Responsible Consumption and Production” to more familiar terms such as “tourism” and “recycling,” and even “up-cycling.” They soon realized that not only do these issues reflect so much of the immediate world around them, these agendas are also interconnected with one another. It grew increasingly clear that each student has an impact on our environment. They also have the responsibility to sustain it whether they’re from Stockholm or Oita.

Oita’s selection to host the Rugby World Cup in October 2019, and its invitation of athletes from New Zealand, presented an opportunity to learn about UNSDGs in an unexpected way. While the international teams were warmly welcomed by Oita’s residents, their arrival may have stirred controversy had the local tourist association not loosened its age-old refusal of bathers with tattoos. While body-art is part of Maori cultural heritage and a source of pride and identity, in Japan, it is often affiliated with the underworld. Stanford e-Oita students used these current events to shift lines of sight and inquiry to have discussions on equity, inclusivity, and human rights.

Students identified one or more UNSDGs that resonated with their concerns and personal experiences whether it was the flooding of their neighborhood due to climate change, the rising aging population of their hometown, or the arrival of foreign residents in their communities. For their final presentations, students pitched their ideas on how they would tackle particular social or environmental challenges. They had five minutes to present 10 PowerPoint slides, in English.

Sustainable Cities and Communities
“Sustainable Cities and Communities” must have been the most popular UNSDG among students. This was not surprising considering Oita’s recognition as a major travel destination for onsen. When exploring “Sustainable Cities,” students wondered how onsen culture and tourism could be re-imagined to appeal to, and be accessible to more diverse audiences including teens, young professionals, international visitors, and the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community.

Stanford e-Oita student Koyomi envisioned a multilingual travel app linking travel agencies, inns, transportation, and tourist destinations, allowing visitors to explore sites and accessibility in real time. Nao looked at ways to address issues common in many regional towns such as population stagnation, vacant housing, and school closings. She suggested launching an interactive website to revitalize interest in historical sites and make regional festivals appealing to youth. Moe thought that historical sites could even be refreshed using “retro” designs and images.

Affordable and Clean Energy
Yuri approached onsen from a different, environmental angle. In her final presentation, she showed us how the onsen steam can harness renewable geo-thermal energy. Unlike nuclear plants, geo-thermal power plants harness energy from turbines, powered by steam, produced by water, and heated by seismic activity.

Nao described the “Heat Island” phenomenon in Japan: cities in urban areas are warmer than nearby rural areas, having the potential to raise the temperature of urban areas by several degrees, enough to affect weather patterns. One way to counter this effect would be to develop innovative and environmental “green roof” buildings.

Airi commented, “Before, I thought that onsen were just a source of tourism but onsen can also be thought of as renewable energy. It’s amazing that onsen can have many uses. We need to preserve this wonderful culture in Oita!” Students recognized that their neighborhoods, whether they lived in the city or in remote towns, were rich in resources and stories. 

Quality Education
Next, Stanford e-Oita students approached the UNSDG, “Quality Education.” Rather than focusing on the social and educational services for students already enrolled in schools, students looked at the potential educational needs of working, foreign students and their families, as well as foreigners who want to permanently relocate to Oita to work. Ken hoped to see laws enacted to provide these permanent immigrants with voting rights so they can become more empowered and contribute to Japanese society.

Kohaku proposed a cultural school for foreigners that would allow them to attend night classes, online. This would offer those working during the day with a chance to build up their language skills while simultaneously learn about Japanese culture and history. Proposals like this touch on education, gender, and economic growth, showing the inter-connectedness of UNSDGs. 

Hozuki supported online classes for non-traditional students who need flexible learning options. She also welcomed this option for youth who resist attending school due to bullying, domestic abuse, or a family’s financial insecurity. Hozuki added, “It would create a ‘safe space’ for them.”

Gender Equality
“International Coming Out Day” on October 11th is another “safe space” for individuals wanting to reach out to their communities for support and self-empowerment. Manaka pointed to specific “gender free” and “barrier-free” spaces that provide daredemo toire (the “anyone toilet”). Acknowledgment of “safe spaces” like these reduces the harassment and violence that many LGBT communities face.

Zero Hunger/Clean Water and Sanitation
Ayami pointed to the importance of promoting local foods and labeling it for transparency and accountability. Amiko suggested the creation of “Oita Care Packages” that would simultaneously promote local food to other regions of Japan and minimize food waste.

Asako made sure to add that the production of food also involved aquaculture. Honoka and Yuri noted that the management of these marine resources should begin with measures countering pollution.

Amika, who gave a presentation on tackling food waste using an app, commented, “I realized that there was something that even young people can do.” When asked how she would finance the development of her app, she replied with confidence, “Oh, I’ll just crowdfund!” Technology and social media have made it easier for students to collaborate and share ideas. This is certainly the case for tech-savvy high school students.

Big social change can come from individuals in small and remote towns. Stanford e-Oita students have shown that their hometowns in Oita offer fascinating contexts to begin conversations on sustainability. Students have gained a deeper appreciation of local natural resources, cultural traditions, and historical sites. They also gained a sense that they, too, can contribute to social change right from their own backyards. Yuzu noted, “What I enjoyed most about the final presentations was that I was able to get to know ‘Oita’ from different perspectives.”

Now, better equipped with the confidence to discuss their ideas and speak up about their local and global concerns, e-Oita students may feel a step closer to even internationally recognized activists like fellow teen Greta Thunberg. If the UNSDGs represent our world’s commitment to building a better world for people by 2030, then Stanford e-Oita students would be the perfect Gen Zers to stand alongside Greta to do just that. 

SPICE provided me with an opportunity to invite artists, activists, researchers, and entrepreneurs (including several Stanford alumni) to share their personal and professional stories with students over Zoom. Their openness to address questions put Stanford e-Oita students at ease, allowing them to take a bold step out of their comfort zones and engage. I’d like to thank the following individuals for their collaborative spirit and generosity:

Gary Mukai
Director, Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE)

Michelle Kumata
Artist and Former Exhibition Director, Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience

Jan Johnson
Owner, Panama Hotel [National Historic Landmark] in Seattle's Nihonmachi (Japantown)

Glenda Pearson
President, Friends of Mukai Farm & Garden [National Register of Historic Places]

The Honorable Norman Mineta
Former U.S. Secretary of Commerce and Transportation

Xiao Wang
CEO, Co-Founder, Boundless Immigration

Sara Daniels
CEO, Co-Founder, Blue Canoe Learning

Jonathan Poli
Product Design Engineer, Seattle Children's Hospital

SPICE also offers online courses to U.S. high school students on Japan (Reischauer Scholars Program), China (China Scholars Program), and Korea (Sejong Korea Scholars Program), and online courses to Chinese high school students on the United States (Stanford e-China Program) and to Japanese high school students on the United States and U.S.–Japan relations (Stanford e-Japan Program). 

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