The Center for Green Schools estimates that more than 14 million American children attend K-12 schools in districts where there are green building policies, and that number is projected to climb to 62 million by the year 2040. But what do we know about how such policies translate into environmental education? What relationship, if any, exists between green-building practices and what a kindergartener, say, actually learns about sustainability?
Marine conservationist and author Charles Saylan has argued that environmental education in the United States is failing, ranking low on our list of academic priorities. This may be true in some places. But a sampling of four schools suggests that sustainability education not only is on the rise, but also can offer lessons in standard subjects like math, science, and reading.
With the help of guest editor Stacy Smedley, who designed one of just three school buildings certified by the Living Building Challenge, and Rachel Gutter at the Center for Green Schools, we set out to find inspiring examples of students, teachers, and communities engaged in Earth-friendly learning. They weren’t hard to find. Educators are working lessons about water, energy, food, and design into traditional classes; at one school, lunchtime itself is a learning experience.
Notably, all four schools are public institutions. Three are part of low-income districts in regions not typically associated with environmental progressivism (rural Virginia, for instance). This is consistent with one of Saylan’s more optimistic observations, based on his success in engaging students from inner-city Los Angeles to voluntarily clean up ocean trash. “They couldn’t ignore the mountain of junk that was coming out [of the water],” he said in a 2011 interivew. “That was a real object lesson.”
Solar panels, school gardens, even leaky plumbing are providing object lessons to these students, our future citizens, who are coming to understand the world they will one day steward.
Buckingham County Primary School / Dillwyn, VA / grades k-2 / 504 students
American schools are justifiably criticized for serving over-processed foods, even while fewer than ten states mandate physical education or recess periods. But Buckingham County Primary School in rural Virginia is designed to be different. Its LEED Gold campus occupies the county’s former junior-high building, but has a new cafeteria where fresh food is prepared in front of students and gardens where trees and bushes produce vegetables, fruits, and nuts.
VMDO Architects led the renovation, and as Steve Davis, VMDO’s director of sustainable design, explains it, creating a cafeteria-as-a-learning-experience did not add to the building’s size or costs. Collaborating with researchers from the University of Virginia and University of Nebraska, VMDO designed the school to provide a real world opportunity to consider how the food environment might contribute to obesity prevention. The kitchen, for instance, facilitates actual cooking, not just warming food, and is open to students, who can view the food being prepared.
Importantly, these health-oriented concepts are extended into other classes. “The ways that we are able to incorporate learning in our new spaces are endless,” says Pennie Allen, the school’s principal, noting that the teaching kitchen, food lab, school garden, and outdoor learning spaces mesh well with a state-mandated framework for reading and math. Davis concurs. “What the university researchers tell us thus far is that food and gardens provide new activities for learning,” Davis says. “It’s tied to math, science, history, and art.”
High Springs Community School / High Springs, FL / grades PK-8 / 852 students
Many schools’ green education begins with a building. At High Springs Community School in Alachua County, Florida, it started with a book. Judith Weaver, a school librarian at the rural middle school, managed to get students in grades five through eight to read A Long Walk to Water in 2012. The story is about children in Sudan who spend four hours each day walking to and from a water source. To students in the Sunshine State, where natural springs are a major source of recreation, this was a foreign concept.
Yet they embraced it. With the guidance of Weaver and other teachers, students studied various aspects of water scarcity and vulnerability, they raised money to send to water organizations working overseas, and then they looked around their own 30-year-old campus. It was a basket case of water waste.
“There was always a small pool in the parking lot,” says Weaver, whose library is situated in a school hallway. “It was due to a leaky pipe. And we had an irrigation system for the landscaping that wasn’t necessary, as well as leaky faucets and old toilets that ran all the time.”
The students’ active interest in water conservation provided impetus for administrators to fix things. The leaky outdoor pipe was repaired, bathroom plumbing and fixtures were retrofitted, and landscape irrigation was turned off because natural rainfall was found to be sufficient.
That wasn’t the end of it. The whole district and its students realized that water conservation is intrinsic to learning. A xeriscape garden was planted, math classes began calculating water usage from brushing teeth, and carrying two one-gallon jugs (about 17 pounds) of water around the school running track, Sudan-style, became a gym exercise.
Inglemoor High School / Kenmore, WA / grades 10-12 / 1,872 students
Inglemoor High School, built in 1964 in Kenmore, Washington, is not a LEED-certified building. But that hasn’t stopped Mike Wierusz from creating one of the country’s most unique courses on sustainable engineering and design. Just a few minutes outside Seattle, students in his class visit premier projects like the Bullitt Center—often referred to as the greenest commercial building in the world—and lean on the area’s brain trust of environmental designers, engineers, and businesspeople.
Not having state-of-the-art facilities is not necessarily a drawback. Studying older buildings allows students to learn from the mistakes of the past. “With a school that’s already green, it’s like the painting that’s already done,” he says. Instead, he takes students through stages of learning—the vocabulary of sustainability, technical methods, systems theory, and ethics—and they apply what they’ve learned to a conceptual renovation or redesign.
Taught over the course of two years, the second year’s capstone project involves the students in real world, self-identified programs. Past projects include creating a touchscreen monitoring kiosk, a mobile green-learning lab for elementary students, wetland housing designs, and a composting toilet. “Don’t ask them what they want to do when they grow up,” he says. “Ask instead, ‘What do you want to do now?’”
To these kids, “things like solar energy and compost are assumptions,” Wierusz says. “When they look at the Bullitt Center, they ask, ‘Why not?’”
Wierusz’s career path into education is as different as his students’ approach to design. His resume includes a degree in mechanical engineering, a tour of duty with the US Air Force in Uzbekistan, and work in the commercial HVAC industry in Seattle. His students’ interests are similarly diverse—they are “not just math and science kids,” he says. “We grab them through an interest in design, in sustainability, and in the environment. They are not necessarily engineers.”
Sandy Grove Middle School / Lumber Bridge, NC / grades pk-5 / 521 students
Sandy Grove Middle School in Lumber Bridge, North Carolina, opened its doors for the first time in late summer 2013. The $16.7 million facility maximizes its physical resources—roofs for solar panels, athletic fields for geothermal wells—to capture all the renewable energy it needs, plus considerable excess that it sells to the local utility, making it the first net-positive middle school in the country.
The story of how the LEED Platinum building (certification pending) was financed is as interesting as—and an important part of—its energy story. Sandy Grove was built by a private entity, FirstFloor K-12 Solutions, a sister company to SfL+a Architects, who designed the building. FirstFloor leases the building back to the school district. This was advantageous economically and environmentally because FirstFloor qualified for renewable energy tax credits that were not available to the public school district.
In front of the building, four bright blue, 20-foot-tall solar-energy sculptures make it clear that this is not your average school. Yet the real action is inside, on computer screens where students visit a Web-based dashboard to view in real time how much energy is being consumed.
Because different grade levels occupy separate wings, students compete by grade on energy conservation. “They turn off lights when leaving a room; they unplug electronics that aren’t being used,” principal Erica Fortenberry says. The dashboard data is also used in science and math classes (North Carolina actually mandates solar energy education in the eighth grade), but solar power has a place in English class as well, where the pros and cons of renewable energy are debated.