June 15, 2020

International PhD student leads 'Green Classroom' in Mexico

Veronica Briseño Castrejón wins 2020 Sustainability Award

Veronica Briseño Castrejón, PhD student in environmental design, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, has always been up for challenge and adventure. Four years ago, she came to Canada with her family after winning a scholarship from the National Council of Science and Technology in Mexico to pursue her PhD in environmental design.

Her challenge? She did not speak English. 

“I didn’t speak English when I came here four years ago,” says Briseño Castrejón. “I couldn’t hold a conversation, so it was a big adventure.”

Fast forward to 2020 and Briseño Castrejón is fluent in English, has written her PhD candidacy exams and won a 2020 Graduate Student Sustainability Award. To top it off she is also running Aula Verde, a non-profit organization in Mexico that generates environmental changes through community engagement and volunteering. The organization collaborates with undergraduate Mexican students, universities, children and teachers at elementary schools, communities, companies and professionals, as well as Indigenous Peoples.  

Non-profit 'Green Classroom' invites collaboration

“Aula Verde translates to ‘Green Classroom',” says Briseño Castrejón. “I founded the non-profit in 2013 to identify different sustainability problems in local communities and to design activities that allow the collaborative co-creation of solutions that positively impact our environment.

"In Mexico, we don’t have a master's or PhD program in environmental design like UCalgary offers, so I’m excited to bring what I have learned and apply it to Aula Verde and in my professional life as an architect.”

While Aula Verde has implemented a wide-range of initiatives in Mexico, three stand out. During one initiative, Briseño Castrejón trained construction personnel working at a hospital how to select and use construction waste materials for new projects. They designed and built greenhouses, hydroponics models and roof protections for elementary schools, transforming underutilized areas into useful sustainable spaces.

Vivid, experiential, enjoyable

“Our programs provide vivid, experiential and enjoyable lessons that improve children’s understanding of many curricular topics,” says Briseño Castrejón. “Another initiative we undertook was working with 900 youth and 100 professors to help them produce lettuce and vegetables each week in school. This led to the creation of an ‘Eating Healthy’ program to challenge the growing concern of childhood diabetes and obesity rates in Mexico. During lunch time, school staff offered free salads from their collaborative production and own harvests.”

Finally, Briseño Castrejón worked with undergraduate students to implement Cactaceae gardens. They developed a manual to teach elementary schools students how to plant and preserve cacti species. The goal was to create awareness about the loss of these species in certain areas of Mexico, while also including traditional ceramic pots from Oaxaca Indigenous artisans in the project.

One of the amazing things about Aula Verde is that it has not received any governmental funding or financial support from other organizations; Briseño Castrejón and her dedicated team built the non-profit together.

Sustainability means many things for many people, but for me, based on the experience I had in Mexico with Indigenous Peoples, the meaning of sustainability is the care of life with respect to all beings.

“The real meaning is about love, humility, austerity, sharing, respect and reciprocity, and unfortunately, we have started to lose these in many ways in our societies. We need to re-learn to take from the Earth only what we really need and return it in a better way.”

The University of Calgary’s Institutional Sustainability Strategy provides a road map for continuous improvement in our pursuit of excellence and leadership in sustainability. We aim to become a Canadian post-secondary education leader in sustainability in our academic and engagement programs, administrative and operational practices and through supporting community and industry in their aims for leadership in sustainability. Learn more about UCalgary’s leadership in sustainability.