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The Green School: Using Buildings as Teachers

By Cynthia Thomashow

green school /grEn skül / n. a school building or facility that creates a healthy environment that is conducive to learning while saving energy, resources and money.

When I was a child in school, I never questioned the source of the building’s heat or light. I didn’t ask about where the food in the cafeteria came from. I didn’t care about how many materials were used in the classroom or what happened to them after they were no longer needed. Then, in 1972, my perspective shifted. As the iconic photo of Earth taken by the crew of Apollo 17 was discussed in my college classroom, the “blue marble” floating in space suddenly seemed small, fragile, limited. I started asking questions about the way I lived — the way we related to each other as a society, the way we consumed resources — and I started weighing the amount that we waste against what we recycle. It was an important awakening.

Every school day, more than 55 million students and five million faculty, staff and administrators spend the day inside school buildings. Yet the majority of us don’t understand the systems that support their operations, such as how they use energy, where water comes from, and where waste goes. One of the richest areas for environmental education comes from uncovering the secret life of a school building.

“We have assumed that learning takes place in the buildings but that none occurs as a result of how those buildings are designed and built,” said David W. Orr, an environmental studies professor at Oberlin College. “[B]uildings are a physical form of curriculum that teach lessons in the way they are designed, built and operated.”

From 2008 to 2010, more than $35 billion tax dollars were spent on K-12 school construction. It is the largest construction sector of the U.S. economy. But, typically, schools are built to meet code and nothing more. They tend to have poor ventilation and poor lighting. They tax our resources and contribute to climate change. But new construction and green renovations promise a different kind of consumption.

Green schools use at least 30 percent less energy, reduce carbon emissions by 35 percent, reduce water usage by 50 percent and can cut the cost of waste disposal between 50 to 90 percent.  The total financial benefits of green schools are 20 times greater than the initial costs, including significant energy and water savings. A green school can save $100,000 per year in operational costs, or roughly enough to hire two new teachers, buy 200 new computers or purchase 5,000 new textbooks. Greening schools can make a large impact on student health, test scores, teacher retention, school operational costs and the environment.

There are many elements to a green school, including energy efficiency, recycling, school gardening and composting, sustainable materials, transportation, and indoor air quality. Although integrating these elements is critical, it is important that students learn how all of these elements contribute to making a green school. This will ensure that future generations will continue to make our environment more sustainable.

One of the most interesting activities coming out of green schools is how sustainability education permeates the curriculum. Green schools connect children to the real world in unimaginable ways. They inspire kids to want to read and do math and learn so that they can protect what they love — the oceans, the forests and wetlands that provide ecological services and resources. As parents and as communities, we owe kids healthy, nurturing environments that also teach and inspire them. That’s what green schools do.

Young people love to figure out how things work. Children seem naturally inclined to untangle complex systems, getting to the heart of how things operate. Our goal should be nothing less than to train a new generation of sustainability leaders, graduates from all levels of education, who understand the intricate connections between economics and ecology, place and planet, how we live and the consequences of our actions. In the coming decades, the public will more frequently be called upon to understand complex environmental issues, assess risk, and evaluate proposed environmental plans. The ability to understand how individual decisions affect the environment on local and global scales requires a collective, systematic approach to sustainability education.

Young people in schools today are also the next workforce. They will be designing, building and maintaining our living and working spaces. Green buildings can become powerful teachers, developing in our children, as environmentalist Paul Hawken said, “the capacity and ability to create a remarkably different economy, one that can restore ecosystems and protect the environment while bringing forth innovation, prosperity, meaningful work, and true security.”

Business leaders agree that an environmentally literate workforce with better environmental practices and improved efficiency will impact positively on the bottom line and help to better position and prepare their companies for the future. For example, the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation estimates that environmental education about topics such as health, sanitation, recycling, energy, water and waste management would save small and medium sized businesses at least $25 billion a year.

Michael Stone, in his book, Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability, suggests a method for organizing learning around the principles that sustain ecosystems in order to build basic ecological knowledge. Stone suggests that we need to teach our children the fundamental facts of life through our interaction with our constructed and natural learning environments. Those basic concepts include:

  • Matter — the particles that make up the universe — cycles continually through the web of life.
  • Most of the energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun.
  • Diversity assures resilience.
  • One species’ waste is another species’ food.
  • Life did not take over the planet by combat but by networking.
  • Everything is connected.

These principles create a cohesive focus for integrating sustainability and ecological literacy into the curriculum. They can be applied by aligning the operations of the school with the ecosystem services that support that building. If a school represents environmental quality, efficiency and care, the students will carry those lessons home.

Students learn best when they are engaged and inspired. Imagine the learning potential when the school building itself becomes an interactive teaching tool, educating the next generation of sustainable leaders through hands-on learning. High school students could learn about renewable energy from the solar panels on their building’s roof. Middle school students could study ecosystems in their school’s constructed wetland. Kindergarteners could grow organic vegetables that they would eat for lunch.

The school building no longer needs to be a passive vessel filled with students, teachers and books, but could be an opportunity for experiential learning and discovery. The whole school can become a sustainability laboratory for living and learning in an integrated approach that captures the interest and curiosity of students, teachers and the community.

Follow-up online:

K-12 Sustainability Education
U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools: http://www.centerforgreenschools.org
The Green School Network: www.greenschoolnetwork.org
The Green Schools Initiative:   http://www.greenschools.net
Project Learning Tree:  http://pltgreenschools.org
Green Education Foundation:  http://www.greeneducationfoundation.org
Green Community Schools:  http://www.greencommunityschools.org
The Green Schools Alliance:   http://www.greenschoolsalliance.org
The Cloud Insititute: www.cloudinstitute.org
Envirosax: http://www.envirosax.com/education_resources

 Colleges and Universities:
The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE):  www.aashe.org
American Colleges and Universities President’s Climate Commitment (ACUPCC):  www.presidentsclimatecommitment.org
National Wildlife Federation: http://www.nwf.org/campusEcology
Clean Air — Cool Planet: www.cleanair-coolplanet.org
U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainability: www.uspartnership.org


Cynthia Thomashow is the education manager for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. She previously directed the master’s program in environmental education at Antioch University New England Graduate School, and directed the Center for Environmental Education, an online teacher resource center in environmental and sustainability education. Thomashow also developed and managed the educational program for National Public Radio’s Living on Earth radio show. She also served as an adjunct professor at Unity College.

The Jewish Energy Guide presents a comprehensive Jewish approach to the challenges of energy security and climate change and offers a blueprint for the Jewish community to achieve a 14% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by September of 2014, which is the next Shmittah, or sabbatical, year in the Jewish calendar.

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