We go to school to be exposed to the unknown, to the strange, and to the new. No one goes to school to learn things they already know. Perhaps this explains educational institutions' seeming comfort with change. The constant confrontation with strangeness seems to prepare student and faculty for progressive change. This may explain the last few years' spate of colleges and universities that buy or generate their power from renewable resources, and the recent rash of middle and high schools that are utilizing renewable energy and building green.
By buying or generating their own renewable energy, institutions switch from being supporters of global warming and harmful extractive industries, (For a video of what coal mining does to our earth, click ">here) to supporters of a growing sustainable economy.
While detractors paint renewable energies as a technology of the future, American college and universities of all sizes buy or generate power from clean, renewable power sources. As of early 2007, the College of the Atlantic in Maine, Concordia University, Evergreen State College, New York University, University of Central Oklahoma, University of Washington, University of California Santa Cruz, Warren Wilson College, and Western Washington University all purchased 100% of their energy from resources like wind and solar. Other institutions like Duke University, and the University of Pennsylvania, purchased a significant percentage of green energy (30% and more).
As oil and energy prices have gone up, these schools decisions are looking smarter and smarter. To learn more about higher education institutions that are greening themselves, check out the U.S. EPA's green power partnership.
The last few years have seen high schools and middle schools follow this trend, utilizing renewable energy and greening their buildings. According to the Washington Post, as of last fall, 360 schools were applying for U.S. Green Building Certification (http://www.usgbc.org/), compared to 4 in the year 2000. Schools decisions to buy renewable energy, or better yet, to create a green infrastructure generates publicity about environmental problems, aides student performance, saves money, and most importantly teaches young people about sustainability.
As an example, consider Whitmore School in Michigan, which went green last summer, installing geothermal heating and cooling, and using biodegradable and recycled building materials as well as water saving devices to net significant operating cost savings, and a whole new level of education. The architects, Mitchell and Mouat were mindful in their construction that schools are "public, and can raise the awareness of people." Every parent in this community knows a little more about green building, and geothermal energy resources. They've seen green design, including natural lighting and non-toxic building materials boost their child's mood, and educational experience.
Can green building really improve a student's education? Students at award winning T.C. Williams High in Alexandria, Virginia, are reporting having an easier time focusing in class, and studies have shown that students in green schools can expect higher test scores.
In addition to greater publicity for green issues, and increased student performance, green schools can also be money savers for communities. For example, northwest of Sacramento, California, Inderkum High School is taking advantage of geothermal energy to reduce its energy costs dramatically. Use of available renewable resources, and efficiency technologies are saving the school $70 per square foot (more than 20 times the $3 per square foot cost of green building.) The US Green Building Council estimates the average school can reduce its energy costs by $100,000 a year.
Increased awareness, higher performing students, and lowered costs are all immediate benefits of green schools. The final benefit I want to discuss may take longer to bear fruit, even if we can observe it today. Green schools, and sustainability education are producing a generation of children versed in solutions to environmental problems. Check out the video below featuring students of Edmund Burke School in Washington DC explaining why they want to keep CO2 levels at 350 ppm. The students not only understand the solution, but they have specific plans for how they can be a part of this solution. They don't have comprehensive plans for the United States or the world, but they do have simple, concrete, achievable goals they can reach in their own lives.
Similarly, outside Monterey, California, the The York School recently installed 37.5 kW of solar panels to provide energy for their 8th-12th grade program. This decision grew out of the school's "philosophical commitment to building green." This philosophical commitment produced some beautiful results as the installation of solar panels has trickled into students' consciousness, and instructors have utilized this 'teachable moment' to share the physics of solar energy with their students.
(Finance students take note: York School's project was achieved in partnership with Solar Power Partners (SPP), a California based company who sells its customers a 'power purchasing agreement' where the customer agrees to pay SPP regularly over the course of many years for the 'service' of reliable, zero emission, solar energy. This payment system takes the place of a huge lump sum purchase of solar panels and installation. In exchange for the promised regular payment, SPP installs and services solar panels at the client's location. Solar installation and continued maintenance for a regular energy fee instead of a huge up-front cost brings solar energy to a market who cannot afford to pay for 20 years of power at once.)
Lest you think that green building is limited to private schools with money to invest, the Chicago Public School system, the nation's third largest, now sports a green jewel in its crown. Tarkington Elementary School, with its natural lighting and recycled materials, was designed for a pedagogical value: "If we can teach students about sustainability, that's the highest praise we could possibly hope for." says Erin Lavin Cabonargi, managing architect for Chicago Public School's Department of Operations.
How can teachers utilize their green environs to impart lessons of sustainability? According to teacher Steven Cota, "To raise students' awareness, there must be a physical engagement." He uses practical, hands-on learning to "make students aware of a reality they're not used to seeing." For example, Mr. Cota's students sort recyclable materials, weigh them, and then multiply their waste by 7 days to see how much recycling is possible in one week. These lessons won't end at Tarkington; Chicago Public schools plans to build all future buildings in accordance with LEED green practices.
All those new Chicago Public schools will turn out students who understand sustainability principles- and not a moment too soon. The first step toward a sustainable civilization has to be a citizenry who understands both what's at stake, and concrete solutions to environmental problems. Who better than a child educated in a school built of recycled material powered by the sun?