From Washington state to Florida to Colorado, more schools are being built with sustainability in mind. These environmentally friendly buildings take into account everything from natural lighting to water conservation—even the landscaping outside. But how does changing the physical environment impact the learning environment?
To understand this question we visited six-year-old Kinard Core Knowledge Middle School in Fort Collins. It’s the most energy efficient school in Colorado, according to Poudre School District officials. The school is also of interest to researchers like Stephanie Barr, an associate at Colorado State University’s Institute for the Built Environment.
As districts construct more sustainable schools, Barr is trying to understand how the buildings affect students. To learn what’s unique about Kinard, we first visit an empty science classroom on the second floor. It has two sets of windows along one wall.
Even on a cloudy day, natural light pours into the room.
“The bottom set is specifically for views,” says Barr. “But then the top ones are for harvesting daylight. They combat the glare by having those louver systems.”
In order to get the light to the farthest places in the classroom away from the windows, architects used something called a solar tube, which projects light beams down from the ceiling. When it comes to natural light, Barr says some research has studied its connection to student performance in subjects like math.
“It also influences science and reading,” she says. “So if we can raise student test scores just by having a great building, I think that’s a great first step in the right direction.”
Kinard is one of six schools built from the ground up in Poudre School District with sustainable principles in mind. And so far the school’s paying off. It uses about one-third the amount of energy compared to a typical school. That’s thanks in part to Kinard’s geothermal system, which taps into the earth for heating and cooling.
But Barr says a successful green school needs to go further than just saving money.
“The building is important, but it’s just a pretty shell if it’s not integrated into curriculum and culture,” she says. “So that’s what we’re researching right now is how do you do that.”
During the typical school day of tests and prepping for statewide assessments, goals like these can easily fall to the bottom of the list for teachers. Barr says this “whole school” approach to sustainability starts at the top from school leadership setting priorities.
But it ultimately comes down to students and teachers taking the reins on projects. Global Leadership and Kinard Cares are two clubs that create projects and teach kids about sustainability.
On one recent afternoon, a half dozen middle school students belonging to Kinard Cares monitored compost and recycling bins.
“You’re witnessing first hand an active leadership role,” says Chris Bergmann, a science teacher who heads up the club. It dispatches members almost every day to monitor how food scraps are sorted into the bins during lunch.
There’s a bit of drudgery to the work, according to student Ian O’Toole. Especially when students pull this prank:
“They put everything in the plastic bag that’s see through, and they shove all their trash in it: everything, all the compost and recycling all in the bag. Then they pour their juice inside the bag so that when we reach in there we get sticky,” he says.
This spring students are taking the initiative to start a no idling campaign, targeting parents who leave their cars running in front of school. And a peak experience comes every summer for kids, who raise money to attend a one-week environmental camp on Catalina Island in California.
“Suddenly you want to do the right thing,” says Rebecca Hamner, an eighth grader in the club.
“And so that’s one of our biggest goals for the year is to make sure people feel the same way we do.”
According to Stephanie Barr it’s this type of attitude that’s critical to the long-term success of any sustainable school. Students learn and they become leaders. All of that can have a pretty profound effect on adults.
“If you have a teacher that’s leaving their lights on all the time, the energy manager can say, ‘Please turn your lights off,’ and they probably won’t. But if you have a 6th grader say, ‘Can you please turn your lights off,’ you can’t say no to that. So they are really the leaders of this change,” she says.
Barr will discuss her complete findings on “Green Schools that Teach” at the Tedx CSU conference in Fort Collins later today.
For a complete listing of events click here.