Schooling Sustainability

Educators eye green building strategies to enhance K-12 curriculum, career preparation

Spring 2018 | Written by Calvin Hennick

As global sustainability challenges become a top-of-mind concern across industries, K-12 educators are racing to incorporate green building concepts into their curricula.

In Tabitha Yeager’s classes at Dighton-Rehoboth Regional High School in North Dighton, Massachusetts, students search Google Maps and real estate listings for local abandoned properties. Then they plan out their own developments for the sites, using key concepts from their earlier lessons about rainwater management, urban heat island effect and sustainable transportation.

“This year, a group of students picked a restaurant that had closed,” says Yeager. “They envisioned remaking it into a farmers’ market that would have food gardens on the property and support local businesses. They planned out solar panel canopies for the parking areas, extensive green landscaping, and a green roof for food production.”

If it’s surprising that teenagers would incorporate sustainable transportation into their design plans, consider that Yeager is the creator of a comprehensive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Prep curriculum that is set to launch nationally this fall. Yeager, who has been teaching her students about LEED for several years, authored the curriculum on behalf of the Austin-based sustainability education organization EcoRise. Portions of the curriculum are already available on USGBC’s Learning Lab portal, and the course is designed to prepare high school students to pass the LEED Green Associate exam.

Above: Tabitha Yeager is the environmental sustainability teacher at Dighton Rehoboth Regional High School.

“What I love about the Green Associate is that it’s an umbrella credential,” says Yeager. “Students learn about indoor environmental quality. They learn about water efficiency. They learn about materials and resources. It does a really great job of giving students an understanding of how sustainability impacts not just the built environment, but also our daily lives.”

While sustainability was once a niche concern, it’s become a fundamental consideration in most design work. Now, green design is making its way into K-12 schools to address what many educators see as an imperative to teach students about global sustainability challenges. Educators like Yeager are working to prepare the next generation of professionals, in green building and beyond.

Above: Dighton students composting.

A Knowledge Gap

Yeager says that, while today’s students have a general awareness of sustainability issues, they often lack an understanding of the specifics. “A larger percent of my students today say, ‘Yeah, climate change is an issue,’” she says. “But they don’t necessarily understand the dynamics of climate change, and what’s causing it. When they start the class, they definitely can’t define sustainability, or explain what the triple bottom line is. It’s more likely that they’ve heard the term ‘sustainability,’ but there’s a knowledge gap.”

In the LEED Prep curriculum, Yeager says, she worked to incorporate engaging activities alongside the raft of specific information students will need in order to pass the LEED Green Associate exam. But she says there’s room for other teachers to delve deeper into specific areas. “If you had an electrical teacher, those students might benefit from some of that knowledge about how the electrical components of [sustainable designs] work,” she says. “That’s why we want to get this curriculum into the hands of career and technical educators. There are lots of opportunities for teachers to take this curriculum and really use it to enhance their students’ learning and understanding around these green concepts.”

In Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the district has added sustainability-focused content into its middle-school science curriculum, and that learning continues at the high school level—especially for students in the district’s career and technical education program. “[Sustainability] is woven into our carpentry program, and also into our engineering and foundation of technology programs,” says Michele Barrett, director of the Center for Careers and Technology at Carlisle High School. “It’s not a stand-alone course. It’s woven into the curriculum.” Carlisle has two LEED-certified buildings: Wilson Middle School and Lumberton Elementary School. In fact, Carlisle is tracking building sustainability data in Arc for all of their school buildings and is preparing the documentation to pursue LEED through the Arc platform for their existing buildings.

Barrett adds that new science textbooks often touch on sustainability, and that many students are exposed to the concept through the media. “I think it’s an expectation, and it’s not a surprise when they come into our course.”

Above: Students at Carlisle High School learn about solar panels firsthand.

Above: Fascination with architecture and environmental design can start at any age and last a lifetime.

Above: DesignWorks Summer Academy is offered by Ball State’s College of Architecture and Planning (CAP).

David Ferguson is an associate dean with Ball State University and oversees the DesignWorks program.

Preparing Students for Green Careers

The inherently practical nature of sustainability makes it a good fit for K-12 career readiness programs. And oftentimes, educators will look for resources beyond the four walls of their classroom to connect students with what’s happening in the real world.

The Austin-based company Nepris, for example, connects educators via live virtual sessions with professionals across a number of different industries, and the company has partnered with USGBC to connect sustainability professionals with students seeking their expertise. Matt Pronio, a program manager for Nepris, says that these conversations often open students’ eyes to new career possibilities.

“Students have no idea what’s out there,” Pronio says. “They know about doctors and accountants and celebrities. But they don’t know about microchip designers. They don’t know about the sustainability professionals that might be solving Austin’s traffic problems.”

Above: DesignWorks Summer Academy provides instruction in environmental design and planning and is open to high school students of all backgrounds and professional interests.

Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, runs a summer camp called DesignWorks for high schoolers, and until recently, the camp has only occasionally touched on sustainability issues. But David Ferguson, an associate dean who oversees the program, is working to better integrate green building concepts into the camp—not only to prepare future design professionals, but also to ensure that future leaders in all fields will have a background in sustainability. This aligns with a growing consensus that sustainability–much like history, algebra, or civics–is something that everybody should learn about, and not a specialized subject that only applies to people who will use the material in their careers.

“To the extent that we can educate the public–because some of these folks will go on to be business people or teachers–it’s a win,” says Ferguson. “And for students who are going to go into design fields, they need to understand that this is now a foundational notion in design.”

Yeager notes that career and technical education programs heavily emphasize practical certifications that students can earn, making the LEED Prep curriculum particularly valuable. And she says that every lesson in the class exposes students to career opportunities they might not have previously considered.

“It’s a great way for students to get enough exposure that they might pursue sustainability careers that they might not have pursued otherwise. They can see that there are careers in stormwater management, and engineering, and architecture.”

In Carlisle, educators place students from the district’s carpentry and other technical programs into internships with a local builder that specializes in green development. “They will take as many students as I can send to them,” says Barrett. “They’re doing hands-on work. It can involve energy sources, HVAC, electrical … it’s anything that they’re inclined to do and allowed to do.”

Barrett predicts that more schools—especially those with career-focused programming—will come to embrace sustainability as a key touchstone of their curricula. “I think they’re going to have to, because employers are going to demand it at some point, whether they are now or not,” she says. “We need to prepare our students for that.”

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