As educators, we continually evaluate and try to envision the new skills that our young people will need in their “21st Century Toolkit” for adult life. The new toolkit will require that young people understand and appreciate their inter-relationship with the earth’s natural systems and finite resources. They will also need to better understand and care about the impact that human infrastructure has on critical resources like energy, water and bio-diversity.
The choices students make every time they enter a store, turn on a water faucet or set the thermostat in their home, reflect their awareness of the interdependence we all share with the natural world and its systems. As adults, our students will be asked to make choices on complex issues that affect their own lives, the lives of their families, their communities, and the world beyond their shores. An environmentally-literate citizenry is not only capable of taking individual action, but also of making well-informed public policy decisions collectively.
What is environmental literacy? Environmental literacy fosters an understanding of how everyday decisions, lifestyle choices, and activities impact the finite resources of this planet. It is the capacity to make daily decisions based on a broad understanding of how people and societies relate to each other and to natural systems, and how they might do so in ways that guarantee future generations will have access to the same
If the U.S. Census Bureau is correct, over the next four decades the world’s population will swell to nine billion. If the Earths’ natural resources are evenly distributed among each person, people in the year 2050 will only have 25 percent of the natural resources available to them that people in the 1950s had. It won’t matter what profession our children choose, each of them will face the reality of managing the environment around them. If our public schools are to adequately prepare the next generation for the challenges they will face, then we must teach them the skills they will need to manage the natural resources they depend upon. Environmental education is the process — activities and experiences across disciplines — that lead students to understand how humans and human-made systems work and interact with the earth’s natural systems and resources.
The Role of School Buildings
Fifty-five million students spend their days in over 130,000 school buildings in the U.S. The huge majority of those schools are significant energy consumers and contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. This explains why green buildings and schools are the latest trend in fighting climate change. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, buildings account for 65 percent of electricity consumption, 36 percent of energy use, 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, 30 percent of waste output, and 12 percent of potable water consumption.
A “green school” building is defined as a building designed through structure, technologies, materials, and fixtures to have a minimal impact on human and environmental health. It can also refer to an existing school building that has green retrofits as well as resource-efficient operating and maintenance procedures. The numerous benefits of “greening” school buildings include reduced operating costs, lower energy output, improved health and productivity for those using the building, and reduced carbon emissions and impact on climate change. These benefits have been demonstrated through studies, which show that green schools have healthier students and staff, higher attendance rates, and students that perform five to seventeen points higher on standardized tests.
With the ability to teach children and their families by example, schools can help transform the world’s energy and resource consumption from a wasteful model to an efficient, sustainable model. There are three aspects to saving resources in schools:
- Behavior — initiatives to turn off lights, computers, etc;
- Tracking and monitoring improvements — energy management systems installed in schools and;
- Infrastructure — Building green schools and green retrofits of existing schools
Schools as Living Laboratories
Schools are “living laboratories” in which students, school staff and the community can witness and learn about the subtle yet pervasive influence buildings have on them. By deepening awareness and understanding, people can transform their relationship to the built environment and begin to see buildings as integrated systems that have the capacity to positively affect their psychological, physiological and economic health.
Miami non-profit Dream in Green’s Green Schools Challenge (GSC) began in 2006, and is a whole-system approach to energy and resource-efficiency in schools. It combines student and school staff involvement; changes in behavior, operations and maintenance; and professional development for cross-functional teams of teachers, administrators and facilities staff. The program engages students in hands-on, learning activities that save energy for schools while also teaching the school community about the links between energy, water, waste, finances, environment, climate change and community sustainability.
Core Principles of the Green Schools Challenge
The Green Schools Challenge helps schools achieve savings from no-cost behavioral and operational changes. The program brings together teams of students, teachers, administrators and facility staff who work together to implement the program by building consensus and a common purpose around energy conservation. The program uses a planning model, with student-led Green Teams at each school developing and implementing plans that support their school’s unique needs, opportunities and priorities. The program fosters long-term community sustainability by making resource-efficient behaviors intrinsic to people’s daily routine. It also exposes and prepares students for entering the green workforce through careers in maturing green industries, i.e., “green tech,”renewable energy, energy-efficiency and carbon analysis.
The Green Schools Challenge is an innovative program that began as a three-school pilot in 2006, but has since expanded every year. In 2010, enrollment exploded from 48 to 101 K-12 schools as a result of the Miami-Dade County Public School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s Energy Conservation Rebate. This creative and highly-successful solution to lowering district energy costs assigns each school building an energy-use target. If a school beats that energy target by the end of the year, the district provides a cash rebate to the school, based on the dollar amount saved. The schools can use the rebate money however they choose — field trips, materials, etc. On average, schools receive between $3,000-$15,000 but some have received as much as $40,000. Green Schools Challenge Executive Director, Gabriole Van Bryce, has continued to grow the program to its current enrollment within 165 K-12 Miami-Dade County Public Schools. “We owe the success of our Green Schools Challenge program within Miami-Dade public schools to the vision and leadership demonstrated by our Superintendent and his executive team in Facility Management, Mr. Jaime Torrens, Architecture, Mr. Victor Alonso, and Eco-sustainability, Mrs. Ana Rijo-Conde. They’re a close, courageous and dynamic team of visionaries that keep the district at the forefront of building management. The Green Schools Challenge is like the ‘wind beneath their wings.’ Our program works as the ground force within schools, fostering behaviors that produce measurable results that meet or surpass the district’s energy goals.”
Why is it now so important to care about energy? Eighty-percent of pollution comes from the production, use, and disposal of energy and its by-products. Energy costs are the second highest expense in a school budget. Electricity generation accounts for 40 percent of the nation’s CO2 emissions. In schools, energy costs are second only to personnel costs as the leading draw on K-12 school district operating budgets, totaling approximately $8 billion annually nationwide. An estimated $2 billion of that total could be saved by improving energy efficiency in K-12 schools.
Why the focus on school buildings now? Approximately 25 percent of Americans go to school or college every day as students, teachers, staff, faculty and administrators. Almost 86 million people are enrolled in, or employed by a school or college. Plus, enrollment in K-12 schools is projected to set new records every year through 2019. Most schools waste large amounts of energy, which offers many opportunities to save energy. Saving energy saves money — something that helps any school. As a result, many school districts, like Miami-Dade, are taking steps to improve the energy efficiency of their school buildings. Along with achieving significant energy cost savings, these efforts also produce environmental, economic and occupant health benefits.
The Green Schools Challenge uses school buildings where students learn how energy is used and wasted in school buildings. This gives students a strong foundation for exploring where and how to conserve energy at home and eventually, in the places where they will live and work as adults. Students also learn about climate change — one of the timeliest topics in the news, politics and international discussions. By understanding energy, carbon and the lifecycle of the things that they do and use on a daily basis, students are empowered to consider their own personal contribution to climate change.
Our country and the world currently face a critical crossroad regarding energy, carbon emissions and global climate change. The Green Schools Challenge helps students, teachers and other school staff develop a sense of energy awareness in their buildings, which in turn makes energy-efficient behaviors and operations intrinsic to their daily routines. School occupants gain the knowledge they need to take the energy-efficiency message home and out to the greater community. As students and school staff learn about energy-efficiency, they also realize the significance of energy in slowing climate change and other environmental problems. Understanding the link between energy, the environment and economics, ultimately means that students will be gain a new Toolkit for the 21st century, upon which the future of the earth as we know it will depend.