Behind every green school project, no matter how big or small, is an individual who is committed to environmental progress. These are the people who fight for change even when resources are slim or when success seems impossible. They are visionaries but may not get much of the credit. We celebrate them here as part of our 2nd Annual Education Issue.

Peggy Matta

Peggy Matta has a history of environmental activism that dates back to junior high school. For her eighth grade science fair project, Matta covered jars in white cloths and set them outside to gather snow. When she brought them inside for the snow to melt, the Detroit air pollution absorbed in the cloths became tangibly, frighteningly visible.

M Matta 2_1Matta, who was born, raised, and educated through college in Detroit, has remained heavily engaged in bringing environmental awareness to Detroit’s classrooms ever since. She is unquestionably one of the city’s leaders in the quest for greener schools. By day, she is a senior associate at Newman Consulting Group and oversees LEED certifications. Outside of work hours, Matta volunteers extensively with the USGBC’s Detroit chapter. 

One of her most important, ongoing legacies as chair of the chapter’s Green Schools Committee is the local Green Apple Day of Service, part of a nationwide annual event that takes place on the last Saturday in September. Volunteers and students engage in sustainability projects across the city. “Green Apple Day has been a great rallying point for our committee volunteers,” she says. “It gives them something hands-on to work on and be involved with, and it’s such a great benefit for the schools that we get involved with too. Then, we like to keep that cooperation and interaction going throughout the school year.”

As she discovered in junior high, when it comes to raising awareness, starting in the schools is critical. ”It’s a shame to have to go to school in a place that triggers asthma,” she says. “And actually, I think these kids get it a lot more than we even do. They catch on faster.” —Steven Arroyo

Phoebe Beierle

Headshot_PBeierle_by Kimberly MoaPhoebe Beierle has had a connection to the Earth since she was a child. Growing up in the New York countryside, she and her family harvested most of their food, cut their own firewood, and all worked on renovating their old home. Her inherent knowledge in environmental practices has propelled her to a career as the sustainability manager for Boston Public Schools, where she’s now bringing people together to enact change in their community.

As a fellow for the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools, Beierle was placed with the public school district to implement sustainable practices that are then passed down to the classrooms and students. Her position is one of connections, where she brings principals, teachers, and students together with community nonprofits that have similar goals. As the go-to person for sustainability in the district, her biggest challenge is facilitating and then pulling back. “It’s one thing to be a connector and bring together these resources, and another to step away and let them continue connecting,” Beierle says.

Through this network of information sharing, Beierle sees a greater awareness in the area’s youth about addressing environmental issues and looking for opportunities to act. This past May, students from one of the district’s schools went to a youth climate summit, where they spoke to the governor’s office about reducing emissions in the face of climate change. And so, her connections continue to grow. —Melanie Loth

Dr. Bill Wiecking

Dr. Bill Wiecking has an interesting way of explaining why investing in the education of high school students is paramount when it comes to progress in sustainability, and yet it’s one with which few would disagree, especially anyone else who has been a teacher for 35 years. “No one has a stronger sense of attitude than a teenager,” he says. “They have a great BS detector and believe that everyone before them did it wrong… This is not someone else’s quest. This is their quest. They’re owning their own education.”

Living Building Challenge award presentationBill WieckingHaving earned degrees in both physics and neuroscience, Wiecking is just as qualified to speak on sustainability as he is on the teenage mind. That’s also what makes him a perfect fit for his job. Wiecking is the director of Hawaii Preparatory Academy’s Energy Lab, the second Living Building Challenge-certified facility in the world.

Providing one workshop and one classroom that fit a combined 40 students and remain constantly full throughout the school week, the Energy Lab plays a leading role in the academy’s curriculum—not just by demonstrating its own innovations to students, but also through hosting classes of various subjects, from environmental science to art history.

Along with Boston firm Flansburgh Architects and project manager Ken Melrose, Wiecking helped the Energy Lab evolve from an ambitious idea into fruition in January 2010. Part of the goal was to prove that no location, not even Hawaii, is exempt from striving for Living Buildings. “Our culture is completely dependent on outside sources,” he says. “So if you could do it here, you could do it anywhere. Where better to demonstrate this than in a place where you’re completely dependent on fossil fuels?” —Steven Arroyo

Stephen Ritz

STEVE RITZ PROJECTStephen Ritz lives just three miles from where he grew up in the Bronx, a borough he sees as a place that can change the world. He’s living proof that with a few committed educators and a whole lot of enthusiasm, under-resourced communities can offer kids everything they need to be successful in the 21st century: an education, job opportunities, environmental awareness, and a philosophy straight from Cesar Chavez: “Si se puede! Yes we can!”

Ritz has taught biology, special education, even typing—though the classroom had no typewriters—but today he is the dean of students and the community partnership coordinator at Hyde Leadership Charter School, a K-12 institution in the Bronx. Most kids, however, know Ritz as the founder of the Green Bronx Machine, a nonprofit that continues to win awards for transforming at-risk students into highly skilled, academically successful, and holistically minded young citizens. Students don’t just learn about green roofs; they are trained and certified as installers. 

One gets the sense that Ritz is an eternal optimist. He calls all his students Americans and emphasizes the “can”—African-American, Puerto Rican, Dominican. And green, he says, is key. “The singularly most effective tool that I’ve ever seen for generating academic performance is the act of growing vegetables in class,” he says. “It really works. When they learn about nature, they learn to nurture. Every child deserves a clean, healthy, nurturing, inspiring environment, and while I can’t build new buildings over night, I can put a plant in the classroom.” —Timothy Schuler

Bruce Coldham

BC-IMG_1408When the RFP for a LEED Platinum, net-zero classroom at Smith College came across Bruce Coldham’s desk, it was the architect’s chance to attempt the Living Building Challenge (LBC).

“The Living Building Challenge is really a reverse-engineered challenge for the carrying capacity of the biosphere,” he says. “If we want to operate in the biosphere, we need these things as humans.” Smith College called him in for an interview—which, by all reports, is regarded by the college as one of the best it has ever had—and by the time Coldham left the room, it was a done deal. 

The project was a new building for Smith College’s Center for the Environment, Ecological Design, and Sustainability, and Coldham, a principal at Coldham & Hartman Architects, felt that pursuing the LBC provided an opportunity for student involvement. Early on, he identified about a dozen potential building features that students could investigate. Five students took him up on the offer, conducting research and presenting their recommendations to the project team. One student found that skylights would not be necessary to assist in the building’s net-zero aspirations, which meant that Coldham’s team could stop searching for skylights that satisfied the LBC’s stringent Red List.

Thanks to Coldham’s original vision, this Living Building at Smith College will continue to inspire and educate students throughout its lifetime. “[With the LBC,] the owner is an advocate and has a stake in the project,” he says, “and the building will move through its life more successfully.” —Melanie Loth