Nurturing The Future

By Kiley Jacques

USGBC’s Learning Lab equips educators with the resources needed to shape environmentally literate students.

Mundo Verde Public Charter School sustainability coordinator Tara McNerney and Jenny Wiedower, K-12 manager at The Center for Green Schools. Photo by: Ana L. Ka’ahanui. 

Ensuring an educational experience that supports a sustainable future is the bedrock of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). In August 2015, they decided to add digital material to prepare students for 21st century jobs, many of which are in the green industry sector.

To start, Jenny Wiedower, K-12 manager at the Center for Green Schools, and her colleagues took cues from the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools Program, which recognizes schools making green strides. According to Wiedower, those strides include measures taken to reduce negative impacts on the environment, increase health and wellness, and produce environmentally literate graduates. “Our role in that third pillar was very nominal,” says Wiedower. “We wanted to do what we could.”

So, in 2013, the Center started working with its community to identify what was being done nationwide to support that third goal. They convened with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a major publisher of K-12 curricula, and 30 stakeholders to whom they posed the question: How are we going to ensure environmentally literate graduates within this generation? The idea was to determine the roadmap and to identify pathways. In nine months’ time, the group came up with the National Action Plan for Educating for Sustainability. Wiedower coordinated the creation of the document, which includes recommendations made by 15 subject-matter experts. The plan intends “to affect policies and practices through collaboration, alignment, and large-scale implementation.”

The Learning Lab was designed as a teaching tool to allow sustainability to permeate down through every aspect of the school.

Actions include things like increasing public awareness, providing professional development opportunities, improving methodologies for teacher evaluations and student assessments, and integrating content and curricula. “One of the key recommendations,” notes Wiedower, “was to continue to push for the development of high-quality curricular content and to ensure digital delivery channels so content can get into schools and keep up with the changing landscape of education in K-12 systems.” Learning Lab is a direct response to that recommendation.

An online marketplace for K-12 curricula, Learning Lab is a platform for educators seeking resources that focus on sustainability. “USGBC aspires to support sustainability education at all stages of a learner’s life,” says USGBC’s SVP for Knowledge, Rachel Gutter. “Through Learning Lab, we have the opportunity to equip our youngest learners with the dispositions and skills that will allow them to have more choices and a greater impact throughout their professional and personal lives.” At the time of its conception, USGBC’s digital education platform for green building professionals already existed. Called Education @USGBC, it was designed primarily to serve professionals who hold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) credentials and are interested in continuing education. The Center worked with USGBC’s education team to emulate the core of Education @USGBC and modify it to appeal to teachers. In August 2015, they began piloting Learning Lab.

Soon, Learning Lab will be rolling out more than 100 new lessons, furthering their efforts to catapult students into a sustainability-focused future.

Soon, Learning Lab will be rolling out more than 100 new lessons, furthering their efforts to catapult students into a sustainability-focused future. Photo by Ana L. Ka’ahanui

Wiedower says Learning Lab was designed, in part, to help USGBC “move toward a way of thinking that goes beyond sustainability practices of buildings and the health of occupants to look at the ways sustainability permeates the content students are working with, using the school, the grounds, and the community as teaching tools—[it’s] a kind of microcosm of a sustainable system.”

What made USGBC bring K-12 educators and curricula developers to the table? “We realized USGBC might not be best equipped to provide education materials for that audience,” explains Wiedower. Hence, the decision to partner with people whose core competency is creating curricula. USGBC brought together members of that network with others who provide technology solutions. It had never before been USGBC’s focus to create K-12 curricula. “We felt, in some way, we were neglecting that piece of the mission of a green school by not having any role in advancing environmental and sustainability literacy.”

Furthermore, K-12 educators are not an audience segment with which USGBC traditionally works. “They are relatively new for us,” says Wiedower. “We wanted to make sure we were developing K-12 education platforms that gave consideration to the unique needs of that audience.”

Toward that end, they partnered with EcoRise Youth Innovations of Austin, Texas, and Representaciones e Inteligencia Sustenable (RIS), which works with schools to implement sustainability projects in Mexico and Latin America. The latter institutes many sustainability practices at Instituto Thomas Jefferson’s five campuses and their communities, and EcoRise uses “design-thinking” to create K-12 environmental education curricula. Together, they devised a new curriculum based on what they were doing independently. USGBC’s role was to develop the digital platform.

“It was incredibly valuable to have both a school and curriculum developer help design the platform, and to have their content immediately available in Learning Lab,” notes Wiedower. Conversely, the partners were thrilled to have the opportunity to build a platform that maximizes the way educators make use of their materials—something Gina LaMotte, executive director of EcoRise, confirms, saying: “Many of us represent small nonprofit organizations that have limited resources for marketing and sales. By showcasing our work on Learning Lab, we gain access to a distribution channel that is far greater than our own respective networks… as well as collective educational networks of the content providers.” Despite our different strategies, products, or services, she adds, in the end everyone advocates for healthy, green schools and a brighter future.

“[Learning Lab] strives to be a one-stop shop for best-in-class sustainability content for teachers,” adds Wiedower. It is a place for educators to find lesson plans, units, and modules. “They don’t need to search all over the Internet. They can come to rely on and trust that Learning Lab has the best of the content that is currently available.”

USGBC aspires to make sustainability practices part of every stage of life and Tara McNerney of Mundo Verde is embracing this future.

USGBC aspires to make sustainability practices part of every stage of life and Tara McNerney of Mundo Verde is embracing this future. Photo by Ana L. Ka’ahanui

Now that Learning Lab is up and running, USGBC monitors the platform to ensure ease of use and content that meets users’ needs. Furthermore, the team behind Learning Lab is going above and beyond to reach new audiences. Teachers who are presently prepared to include sustainability content are tier one of their target audience. Over time, as the platform evolves and educators find it valuable, they intend to broaden their scope. Wiedower notes that Learning Lab’s mission will be fulfilled when it reaches segments of the teaching population that might not think sustainability is something they care about, though they do care about themes and concepts within sustainability, like project-based learning or STEM, student agency and leadership, and critical thinking.

If sustainability is a matter of thinking about how the actions we take today will impact future generations, then it covers myriad themes and pedagogical practices. “Success for us will be when teachers don’t think of Learning Lab as sustainability focused, they just think of it as really high-quality content,” says Wiedower.

The platform’s Sustainable Intelligence segment—authored by EcoRise and RIS—cultivates student environmental literacy by focusing on seven distinct eco-themes. It encourages youth to become thoughtful stewards of the environment and leaders in their communities. “Sustainable Intelligence is our foundational offering on Learning Lab,” explains Wiedower. “During most of the pilot year, it was the only content on Learning Lab.” Having that initial content enabled USGBC to share Learning Lab with prospective partners. (Nature Works Everywhere, a Nature Conservancy project, and components from the Global Oneness Project have since been added to the platform.)

Sustainable Intelligence is a bilingual, full-suite curriculum. It offers lessons that are bundled into modules for different grade bands. Modules are made up of three or four lessons organized around themes of waste, water, energy, air, transportation, public spaces, and food. All of the content is presented in English and Spanish. The Spanish curriculum is not just a translation of the English. For example, links to external resources are offered in both languages—those references were found by the developers in their own language so the material is authentic to its audiences.

“We discovered a great tool to empower students and to build up solid experiences toward sustainability,” says Karla Carrillo Salinas, a teacher in Ciudad López Mateos, Mexico. “What we like the most [about Learning Lab] is that we are a K-12 school, and the tools we find there cover the learning needs of each grade. The lessons are really well interconnected to our national education plan, so we find that students can connect what they learn.”

In early April 2016, the Center for Green Schools launched Learning Lab publically, and made it free to access all content through the summer. The pilot program helped them determine how educators were using the platform, while RIS and EcoRise were receiving input on which lessons and modules were doing well. They were able to determine areas of interest and areas in need of improvement—both in terms of functionality and content. The pilot was also intended to be a means of connecting with educators and forging a relationship. “We thought we could get about 300 teachers…between April and June…. We put out a call to our community to see if teachers would sign up for the pilot,” says Wiedower. “We had 1,400 teachers from 26 countries sign up. It blew our minds.”

In terms of how it works, Wiedower compares Learning Lab to Amazon Prime, whereby the premium content is accessed through an annual subscription. For $40 a year, individuals have unlimited access to all content available on the subscription, which is Learning Lab’s main offering. USGBC will offer bulk packages with anywhere from 5 to 50 access points at a discounted rate. Beyond that, for whole school systems and districts that want to purchase access for their teachers, rates can be negotiated. “At that school district level, we really want to encourage…working in partnership around sustainability with the operations and facilities side of the district, so we will be offering access to both the Learning Lab curriculum and the courses on Education @USGBC about operations and management of facilities, buildings, and strategies…that really fosters whole-school sustainability.”

Soon, Learning Lab will be rolling out more than 100 new lessons, furthering their efforts to catapult students into a sustainability-focused future. They have the information, the tools, and clearly, the audience. “We believed in the demand for Learning Lab but the pilot sign-up really brought it home for us that this is something teachers are eager to see.”