As is always the case with new technologies, the youngsters end up educating their elders. When it comes to sustainability, embracing this fact may be our best bet, which is what the Brooks School, a college preparatory school in North Andover, Massachusetts, did in June 2010, when a popular science teacher asked a select group of four students to stay on during summer vacation. As the inaugural class of interns for the newly formed Brooks Institute for Sustainability (BIS), the elite foursome was given this mission: find ways to produce solar energy on the 250-acre campus without costing the school money and recommend a project contractor to complete the work.

After six weeks of meetings and research, the students determined that Brooks School could recover its initial capital investment within 11 years through three sources: the Solar Renewable Energy Credit (SREC); market, federal, and state renewable energy incentive programs; and an annual $11,000 estimated savings from the operations budget provided by the solar energy itself. The team also projected that after 11 years, the school would begin to turn a financial profit from the project. Now the students just had to convince the administration and trustees.

The Science Building at Brooks School is a 30,000-square-foot showcase of green building, featuring a green roof, solar hot water, and high-efficiency lighting.

The interns presented the plan to key adults, and their tenacity paid off. In April 2011, Brooks made its formal foray into the clean energy world with the installation of an 80-kilowatt solar array on the school gym. A six-person crew from Waterline Companies installed 320 Canadian Solar photovoltaic panels on the west side of the gymnasium roof. For the inverter and monitoring system, the Brooks team chose a model from Solectria, based nearby in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

The boarding school, which enrolls 370 students in grades 9 through 12, consumes approximately 4.2 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. The 6,160-square-foot solar installation generates almost 100,000 kilowatt-hours annually, resulting in a two percent reduction in net power consumption. It was a modest success but an encouraging one; Brooks is now in the planning stages for a substantially larger second solar installation, one that could provide up to 50 percent of the school’s electricity.

Will Collier was one of the interns that developed the original energy plan, and he says the experience helped prepare him for future leadership positions. “I had to take control and speak as a leader and as an equal with men my father’s age, who didn’t agree with the changes we were trying to make,” he says. “It made me understand the real nitty-gritty of trying to make a difference in terms of energy usage and sustainable practices.”

Collier is now pursuing a major in environmental policy and planning and a minor in geography and political science at the University of Iowa, where he is also planning to get a sustainability certificate. He credits his teacher and BIS boss Brian Palm with reinforcing the authority of students. “We were given the trust and ability to try and change some things that we thought needed changing,” Collier says. “We also knew we would be taken seriously, which, for a high school student used to being written off, is a nice thing.”

Palm is the guiding light in all of the Brooks School’s sustainability initiatives. He joined the school faculty in 2001, after earning a masters degree in environmental policy and management from Oxford University. He teaches biology and advanced placement environmental science and acts as head of the science department.

Three years ago, Palm stepped into yet another role—the director of environmental stewardship. From an operational standpoint, Palm identifies energy-saving strategies throughout campus, from eliminating waste in the dining halls to planting a living roof on the science center. He acknowledges, however, that the development of green technologies can only help so much—behavioral change is imperative. So in May 2009, Palm helped the school launch Green Life Brooks, a program developed by TellEmotion that tracks and displays real-time energy consumption in campus buildings.

In touch-screen monitors and online, an animated polar bear smiles when electric usage is low and grows increasingly unhappy in direct relation to the level of energy use. At peak energy times, the ice starts to melt and eventually cracks, and the bear falls into freezing water. The program toggles among animations, tips, graphs, and competition boards to cover all its rhetorical bases. Thanks to Palm, Brooks was the first prep school in the country to use the technology, which is employed in 25 buildings on campus, including 10 dorms.

Last summer, Palm charged his BIS interns with determining additional sustainability measures for Chace House, a 30,000-square-foot, energy-efficient dormitory set to open in fall 2013. The students spoke independently with companies, made off-site visits, conducted research, and performed numerous cost analyses. Once they agreed on an idea—a composting toilet and plumbing system for the dorm—they formally proposed it to select faculty members and John Packard, the head of the school.

The administration took the students’ recommendation and added the system to the building plans. Will Stockwell, another former intern, says that the experience of presenting a plan to the school administration was intimidating at first but proved to be helpful. “When I was treated as an adult rather than a student, it was a very cool feeling,” he says.

Current student Nick Gates agrees. Following his summer work with the Brooks Institute, Gates joined the environmental club and became an environmental proctor in his dormitory, where he helped organize a new recycling program both in the dorm and throughout campus.

“If you had asked me last year whether or not a career in environmental studies or practices would be in the cards for me, I would have probably said no,” Gates says. “However, from my experiences with the BIS, my time with Mr. Palm in his AP environmental science class this past year, and my work in the environmental club, I have a new appreciation and serious interest in environmental practices.”