Duration: 45 min+
Classroom Lesson - Wangari Maathai
Nobel Peace Center / Animaskin

What's this lesson about

Wangari Maathai translated her passion for the environment into a course for action. The Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977, focused on concrete action, such as planting trees and reforestation. Human rights topics explored in this lesson are the right to a decent living, health, and wellbeing.


  • Lesson on Wangari Maathai (45 min)
  • Design Challenge (Student Project)

Learning goals

  • Students will understand that small ideas and changes can have a big effect
  • Students will understand the power of grassroots movements; what starts at the local level can end up having an impact on the national/international level


  • Lesson slides
  • Computer with internet and large screen to share a video
  • Cheat Sheet Maathai (teacher resource)
Lesson slides Wangari Maathai
Cheat Sheet: Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai and the Nobel Peace Prize


Use the lesson slides to introduce the history and key facts about Wangari Maathai and The Green Belt Movement to students

Key points to mention include:

  • Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan woman
  • She started the Green Belt Movement
  • The Green Belt Movement helped to save the environment and advocate for democracy. It did this by empowering women with the skills to plant trees and take care of the environment, and the opportunity to gain not only skills but wages for participating.

Ask students to take a few minutes to reflect (written, partner, or small group discussion) on this quote by Maathai: “When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and hope.” Questions could include:

  • What do you think she meant?
  • What does this mean to you?
  • Is this quote only about planting trees? Could its meaning extend beyond planting trees? If so, what is the larger message here?

1. Explain what students will learn in today’s lesson:

  • The power of small, local actions to catalyze global change
  • How Maathai used the action of planting trees to launch a grassroots movement
  • Planting trees turned into a larger campaign not only for the environment, but for every person’s right to a decent living, health, and wellbeing.

2. Show students this 1-minute video reel about Wangari Maathai and her contributions to the world: Wangari Maathai - Defender of the Earth, fighter for democracy

  • Ask students if they have ever heard the phrase “grassroots movement” before. Encourage students to share what they know or think it might be. Depending on your students’ background knowledge:
  • If they know what a grassroots movement is, ask them to list examples of grassroots movements they know about, past or present
  • If they do not know or are still unclear on what a grassroots movement is, explain that it is a movement from “the ground up,” where people, average citizens who care about something, come together and do what they can to make change. Even if it starts with the small actions of a few, a grassroots movement can grow and have national or even global impact as more and more people unite together in a collective effort

3. Follow-up: Ask students to explain why Maathai’s work creating The Green Belt Movement is considered a “grassroots movement”?

Share the following statement with students: “There are some big problems in the world today and if I take even one small action, it can make a difference.”

  • Point to one wall in the classroom that will become a “physical Likert scale” for students to show their agreement or disagreement with that statement.
  • Explain that standing on one end of the wall represents “I Strongly Agree,” and that standing on the other end of the wall represents “ I Strongly Disagree.” Standing at the midpoint represents “I’m not sure.”
  • Ask students to move and stand in a spot that shows how much they agree or disagree with the statement you just shared.
  • Call on a few students standing on different areas within this “agreement scale” and ask them to explain why they agree, disagree, or are unsure about the statement.
  • Allow students to move and change their spot on the line if anything a classmate shares makes them change their mind about “where they stand” in agreement
  • If students choose to move one way or another, ask them to share why.
  • Ask students to jot down a list of 3 causes they care about—these can be within the classroom, the school, the local community, the country, or the world.
  • Ask students to think about one small action they can take to address each cause, and be ready to share their idea in the next class meeting

On environmental activism:

TED-Ed video and student-facing lesson materials: "Why Act Now?" TED-Ed Earth School video and lesson
Larger resource: TED-Ed Earth School video and lesson series.

Tools for student campaigns:

Online platform hosting youth projects from the United states and 131 other countries

Design challenge


Make it a student project: Design Challenge inspired by Wamgari Maathai

In this challenge, students will work to identify an issue about their community that they care about and want to improve. Through exploring the issue and brainstorming solutions, they’ll identify one small thing they can do that will have a big impact, and commit to doing the small thing for 2 weeks in order to track progress and reflect on the change that they created.

Students will use the design process and to design, implement, and reflect on their actions. Feel free to tailor this experience to meet the needs and interests of your students, retaining following essential elements:

1. Students should identify a small, manageable action that they can reasonably do and repeat daily over the course of two weeks (or the duration of this design challenge.)

2. Students should follow the 5 steps in the design process to guide their design challenge.

What can this look like?

  • Students can work individually, with a partner, or in a small group
  • This design challenge can be done in the classroom, as part of an after school club or project, or a combination of at home and in-school work
  • You can make this design challenge as small or large scale as you’d like, and complete it in a couple of weeks (dedicating one day to each of the stages of the design process below) or extend it to a month or semester.


  • Articles, videos, or other resources to provide students with examples of grassroots movements.


  1. Provide students with examples of Grassroots Movement and explain how small actions turned into something bigger and more powerful with a profound impact. Educators are encouraged to select grassroots movements that would be most aligned with their curriculum or students’ interests. Sharing examples of youth-led grassroots movements will help encourage students and build confidence in their ability to create change.
    Use any of the following grassroots campaigns as examples, or choose your own.

2. Share sample *strategies that can be used as part of grassroots movements:

  • Hosting local meetings or gatherings
  • Organizing demonstrations
  • Putting up posters to provide information or deliver a call to action
  • Talking with people on the street or walking door-to-door
  • Gathering signatures for petitions
  • Letter-writing, phone-calling, and emailing campaigns
  • Setting up information tables
  • Holding “get out the vote” activities, which include the practices of reminding people to vote and transporting them to polling locations
  • Using social networks to organize virtual communities

3. Ask students to choose one of the examples you shared and break it down using a mind map template or online tool to explore the issue(s) the project tackles and how small actions helped create impact.

Once your students have identified an issue they want to address, but before they decide on the action they will take, guide them through the first step of the design process: Empathize.


  • Student worksheet: Step 1: Empathize
  • Student worksheet: K-W-L chart


  1. Review the student worksheet for this step in the design process.
  2. Ask students what they know and what they might not know about the issue they are trying to take action to change. This can be done in discussion, or using a simple K-W-L chart or other graphic organizer.
  3. Using the questions or topics students identified as wanting to learn more about, have students spend time researching and taking notes about what they learn.
  4. The goal in the Empathize step is for students to learn as much as they can about the issue they chose by getting as close as possible to the people or place(s) most affected by it. This type of “research” can take many forms, such as:
  • Field trips
  • Reading
  • Online research
  • Conducting or listening to interviews
  • Watching documentaries
  • Listening to podcasts
  • Exploring social media from trusted source.

Remind your students to take notes during this step in the design process, to record what they learn. They can do this in a notebook, on a computer, or by completing the “L” (“What Did I Learn”) column of a K-W-L chart.

Once your students have spent time learning more in order to empathize with those most affected by the issue they chose, they should narrow down the “problem” to identify a specific and achievable piece of the problem that their small action will help change.

By the end of this step, the goal is that students have a specific and clear problem statement that will guide the rest of their Design Challenge.


Student worksheet: Step 2: Define the Problem


  1. Review the student worksheet for this step in the design process.
  2. In addition to the student worksheet, you may have students use any of the following additional strategies to help them define the problem and create their problem statement:
  • Peer discussion
  • Journaling
  • List making
  • Drawing
  • Idea mapping
  • Sharing possible actions with people affected by the problem (if possible) for feedback

Now that your students have narrowed down a piece of the issue they want to act upon, and created a problem statement to guide them through this challenge, they are ready to have some fun coming up with lots of different ways to take a small action step!


  • Student Worksheet: Step 3: Ideate


  1. Review the student worksheet for this step in the design process.
  2. As students ideate, and encourage them to be bold, creative, and unafraid of listing as many possible ideas as they have to complete this challenge. Let them dream big and go for quantity—the more ideas the better!
  3. At the end of this step, have students choose and share the one “small action” they’ve decided to move forward with.

In this stage of the design process, students create a plan for their action and try it out. The idea is to see if their action has the potential for impact, to get feedback and ideas on how to improve their impact, or even to scrap their plan all together and circle back to step 3 (Ideate) to continue brainstorming or choose a different action to try.


  • Student Worksheet: Step 4: Prototype


  1. Review the student worksheet for this step in the design process.
  2. Have students using the following questions to create a plan for carrying out their action:
  • When will I carry out this action?
  • Where will I carry out this action?
  • Will I need help from my teachers, parents, or peers?

Once your students have a basic prototype, it's time to test it to see if it has the potential for impact. For this design challenge, students should carry out their “one small act” daily for two weeks, and record their observations.

In addition to their own observations, students should collect feedback from other people or the community to learn how their action is creating change from others’ perspectives.


  • Student Worksheet: Step 5: Test
  • Student Worksheet: Daily Observation Log


  1. Review the student worksheets for this step in the design process.
  2. Explain that students will begin carrying out their “small action” every day for the next two weeks (or another predetermined frequency or period of time)
  3. Together or in small groups, have students brainstorm a list of people they can ask for feedback, and questions they can ask those people to help measure the impact of their actions.

It’s time to celebrate your students' hard work and achievements. Consider having a class celebration where students or groups can share the story of the journey they took in this design challenge. Invite others to come and look, listen, and ask questions. Remind your students (and any invited audience) that this Design Challenge was not simply a “school project,” but rather the same exact process designers, engineers, scientists, and many others use in the real world every day to develop solutions to complex challenges.

Teacher resources for Design Challenge: