“Encouraged to come forward”: Impact of an Aga Khan Schools education

05 December 2023

Dr Fozia Parveen, an alumna of the Diamond Jubilee Model School, Sonikot is Assistant Professor at the Aga Khan University Institute for Educational Development. As an environmental scientist, one way she applies her research is by educating teachers to encourage the next generation to care for the planet.

Using Fozia’s Climate Change and Environmental Sustainability module, students can try out activities from creating compost to calculating air pollution, while their teachers and parents can select structured lesson plans. Disseminated by a hundred master trainers, the module is now being used in Aga Khan and other schools and has been added to the resources section for many government agencies.

From a love of nature to environmental science

Born in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan, Fozia says: “I’ve always had an engagement with nature. To walk on the grass, listen to the sound of water every day, climb up a tree and eat the fruit spoke to me more than books.”

Starting from nursery age, she spent her first decade in education at the Diamond Jubilee Model School in Sonikot, Gilgit.

“We used to have a lot of outdoor activities. We would make square beds of soil and write the alphabet and numbers in pebbles. All of us enjoyed finding the prettiest pebbles and competing to make the best letters. The memory influences how I teach, both for adults and when I'm educating educators about interacting with children about the environment.

“And I always liked science. Because of the outdoor space, you could observe and try out what you were learning. When we were taught transpiration, we tied a plastic bag over a plant and at the end of the class, we went and saw the water droplets.”

School beyond the classroom

Fozia recalls the opportunities for physical and creative self-expression.

“Gilgit was still a conservative space and the school gave us opportunities to express ourselves better. There were exercises in morning assembly where you could go beyond the traditional movements that cultural barriers would usually permit girls. At break time we were encouraged to play badminton and cricket and so many other things.

“Another highlight was that everyone was encouraged to come forward and represent the school. At regional events we would sing in each language of the country and then a couple of children from that region would come dressed in that attire and dance. I remember being one of the dancers and later being the lead singer.

“I had a connection with and respect for the teachers. I was always very active and confident and I think a lot of that came from the teachers. They believed in me and always reminded me that I could lead.”

Experiencing difference

For Fozia, pluralism was a lived experience.

“Our school wasn’t elite, and at the time was very subsidised. I gelled with people who spoke different languages and were from different socioeconomic backgrounds. It was just built in that someone whose father was a hospital cleaner was equal to anyone else and had access to all the same things. In this school system, everyone could come together and no one was different.”

Overseas and back

“Being in a small town, we had few opportunities, but we were free to dream of becoming pilots, engineers and doctors. So everyone was ready to go and save the world.”

After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in country, Fozia undertook a DPhil in Engineering Science at the University of Oxford.

“I went to Oxford to study environmental science. Being in a place where all kinds of conversations, cultures and identities were allowed was very enlightening.

“My teachers are very proud of me. For someone from that school to go to Oxford and come back is a huge thing. Whenever I'm back home, I take part in a lot of events and meet some of the people who have seen me grow.”

Putting research into practice

Back in Pakistan, Fozia is now establishing new research areas in citizen and policy science, such as the importance of green spaces in urban areas, monitoring water quality in Lahore and establishing setups for emergency situations.

She is also encouraging teachers to come forward and lead – on the climate front.

While 95 percent of teachers in a recent UNESCO survey said they want to teach about climate change, only a third of them reported having the confidence to do so. As an environmental scientist, one way Fozia applies her research – on plastic pollution, food security and climate-smart agriculture amongst other things – is by preparing teachers to support the next generation to care for the planet.

“I've gotten a US Embassy grant to train 50 teachers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with research and content specific to the area. And I am supervising a thesis on establishing the importance of the natural environment in early childhood.”

When one of her students developed indoor and outdoor lesson plans to see what the outcomes were for her pupils, she saw the quiet ones join in, and the group showing empathy for the environment. The results echoed Fozia’s schoolday memories: “Outside, children’s horizons shift and the conversation expands.”

This profile is part of an alumni profiles series in collaboration with the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). Read more of our alumni profiles here.

  • Dr Fozia Parveen, an alumna of the Diamond Jubilee Model School, Sonikot