Can you tell us how this partnership between the Smithsonian and the United States Embassy in Paris came about?
The French and American governments recognize the importance of promoting climate sustainability and building inclusive and tolerant societies. As the covid pandemic worsened, we needed to find new ways to work together on these issues, as our usual, in-person methods were no longer feasible. We contacted the Smithsonian because we wanted to build a climate program that also promoted the principles of diversity and inclusion for educators and students. Smithsonian education teams are leaders in the field, and their subject matter expertise and program standards are recognized. It was clear from the start that they would be the right partner for such an ambitious project.
What are the climate and sustainable development objectives shared between France and the United States on which this program has focused?
One of the first things President Biden did upon taking office was to join the Paris climate accord. This program is of the same spirit. We’re in the same boat, so let’s get to work. The most valuable aspect of this program was the emphasis on thinking globally and acting locally. The question of how to tackle climate change can be overwhelming. When we break it down into concrete, local steps, we encourage people to take action and gain the momentum to take bigger and bigger steps towards sustainability. Students set achievable goals, such as taking shorter showers or not driving to school, and encourage their peers to get involved as well.
Why is it so important to facilitate Franco-American exchanges between students and teachers?
The most basic job of a diplomat is to facilitate trade between countries. These exchanges take place at all levels, whether between heads of state, companies, local leaders or students. The friendship between France and the United States has always been based on common values and aspirations. And like any long-standing friendship, our different points of view allow us to learn a lot from each other. By connecting the classrooms, we invite young people to be part of this friendship and to contribute to our common history. We give them educational tools and a framework to help them bring their unique perspective and creativity to our common challenges.
Tell us about the virtual classroom and how this framework worked to create an immersive and engaging experience for students.
The French Ministry of Education uses a fantastic platform called eTwinning, which is part of the European Erasmus+ program, to facilitate virtual exchange programs across Europe. We were very lucky to be able to use the platform for this special exchange, in part because of the global issues addressed by the program. Students were able to follow sessions with teams from the Smithsonian and French and American experts live or in replay on the platform. The paired classes also exchanged group and individual activities and experiences through a virtual “twin space” on the platform. This flexible format has allowed us to include classrooms in many different time zones – from Oregon to Maryland to Paris and even French Polynesia!
How do you see this program developing to encourage more conversations and connections between American and French students with their peers around the world?
One of the good things about the last two years is that we are now more comfortable with virtual tools and exchanges. We are already planning to launch the program for a second cohort of French and American classes next fall. As eTwinning is first and foremost a European resource, we would love to bring other embassies to Europe to broaden the dialogue between young people from other countries. The climate issue is a global issue, and our classes must draw on our respective experiences and expertise to meet this challenge collectively and effectively.