“Wow wow wow! What a bunch of smart kids,” said Katie Stabb, after giving a presentation on climate change to students at Beye Elementary in Oak Park. Stabb, who just graduated from Oak Park River Forest High School (OPRF) is a member of It’s Our Future (IOF), Seven Generations Ahead’s (SGA)  youth climate advocacy program. Along with five other Chicago area IOF students, Stabb attended last fall’s UN Climate Summit, COP28, and she came back even more motivated to fight climate breakdown. 

While tabling at an Oak Park environmental event with fellow IOF member, COP alum, and recent graduate of OPRF, Manolo Avalos, the two were invited to speak at Beye Elementary by the school’s Green Team parent leaders, Kara Finnegan and Lauren Smith-MacGregor. When they met Stabb and Avalos at Eco Extravaganza, an event held at the Oak Park Public Library in April of this year, they were excited to hear about the students’ work advocating for climate change education in Illinois. Just a few weeks later, Stabb, Avalos, along with two other OPRF students and IOF members, Poppy Booth (who will be attending COP29 later this year) and Lewis O’Connor, found themselves in Beye’s lunchroom giving presentations to K-5 students during their lunch periods. 

“It seemed like a great opportunity to get the two youth groups together,” said Finnegan and Smith-MacGregor. “We really want our kids to see other avenues for their passion when they get into the older grades. It is powerful for them to see older kids and to be inspired and encouraged.”

Stabb said the students were already very knowledgeable about climate change, and were eager to hear more about how IOF students engage in advocacy, especially with community leaders, from school principals to elected officials. 

My main hope was that the kids would see older students who are interested in what they are doing, and doing something similar,” said Stabb. “And that these things would encourage them to continue doing environmental work.”

While this meeting between IOF students and the Beye Green Team was a one-off event, both groups have expressed interest in collaborating on more events and finding more opportunities for multi-age youth climate education. According to Lauren and Kara, climate change education is not formally integrated into the K-5 curriculum, but they’re hoping to see that change. 

For Stabb, Avalos, and other IOF students, increasing access to equity and solutions-focused climate education among K-12 students is an important goal, and one that is now even more within reach, as a comprehensive climate education bill recently passed both the Illinois House and Senate, and is awaiting Gov. Pritzker’s signature. IOF students spent months actively advocating for the bill. 

The bill, HB4895 requires every public school in Illinois to teach students about climate change, including its impact on communities and ecosystems, and potential solutions for mitigation. It will go into effect for the 2026-2027 school year.

Stabb and IOF student Danica Sun gave a presentation on the bill at the Environmental Educators Association of Illinois conference, and Stabb also gave a presentation, along with IOF students O’Connor and Abhinav Anne, at the Science in the South Conference. IOF student Elora Cianciolo, along with SGA intern Kashmir Owen, created a flier to promote the bill. And Chloe Zhu ended up joining IOF by connecting with other students through her advocacy for the bill. She will also attend COP29 later this year as an IOF delegate. Avolos joined the Illinois Environmental Council Lobby Day in Springfield where he discussed the importance of climate education with state representatives. Stabb and Avalos also tabled at community events and spoke to local faith groups. 

The advocacy paid off, as the bill passed with bipartisan support. To stay updated on when Governor Pritzker signs the bill, readers can follow It’s Our Future and Climate Education for Illinois on social media.

Meanwhile, IOF and the Beye Green Team hope their multi-age climate education model can keep happening, and perhaps even expand into other schools. There were so many benefits for the elementary students from engaging with older students on the climate, and vice versa. 

“The students loved it,” said Finnegan and Smith-MacGregor. “It seems to validate them because they were able to answer questions and dialogue around much of the content.” They also added that this multi-age climate education experience was valuable for “opening their eyes to the opportunities for advocacy, activism, and involvement beyond the Oak Park area.”

For the IOF students who visited Beye Elementary, it was a window into the possibilities and positive outcomes that climate education can create. 

“The whole experience underscored what incredible things can happen when students learn about climate,” said Stabb. “These young kids had a terrific understanding of climate change, better than probably many high schoolers and adults, realized that it wasn’t right, and were taking action in a real way. Imagine if every elementary school had the motivation and the resources to teach about climate change. The young folks would be a force to be reckoned with, making real positive change.”