As we close in on Earth Day 2012, it seems fitting to reflect on the school's dual role in environmental protection.
Like all entities, schools have an environmental footprint. Those in the school generate trash. They use energy for heating, lighting, photocopying and so on. Schools are cleaned using chemicals that have environmental impacts. The list continues.
But schools also have a very unique role in environmental protection: They help students become conscientious stewards of (and advocates for) the environment, protecting it for themselves and generations to come. As we look to schools in the effort to preserve our environment, we should consider both roles to maximize their impact.
Of course, simply by minimizing their own environmental footprint, schools can do a great deal to help the environment. As Redmond (WA) environmental science teacher Mike Town has pointed out, "in Redmond and in most of the small cities in the United States -- suburban cities, rural cities -- the single biggest greenhouse point source is the local high school."
In addition to raising thermostats in the summer and turning out lights when classrooms and auditoriums are not in use, one relatively easy step that schools and districts can take to lessen their environmental impact is "cleaning green."
In a recent edition of The State Education Standard, the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) offered "A Roadmap to Implementing Green Cleaning in Districts and Schools," suggesting a few simple steps to help schools (and districts) start a green cleaning program:
- Develop a comprehensive program focusing on low-hanging fruit or a significant challenge. It should include prevention (in terms of both dirt entering the building and exposure of students and staff to chemicals), conservation (of energy, water and chemicals), education (of the community and staff) and evaluation (of both cost and quality of cleaning and products)
- Switch to green cleaning products as identified by standards set by third-party organizations like Green Seal, EcoLogo and the EPA's Design for the Environment. Such a switch is often cost-neutral
- Introduce green equipment and supplies such auto scrubbers that reduce water consumption and chemical use and high-quality entryway mats that reduce dirt contaminations. While the upfront costs of such materials may be higher than traditional options, they can save money as well as the environment in the long-term
- Adopt green cleaning procedures adjusting the frequency, technique or time of a cleaning. Such changes can have environmental and cost impacts as large as switching products and equipment
- Share the responsibility to ensure that teachers, administrators, students, outside contractors and others join the custodial staff in efforts to maintain a green cleaning program
(If you are interested in learning more about green cleaning programs in action, the issue also features three district case studies.)
In addition to acting themselves, schools can also educate and inspire students on environmental issues, equipping them to make informed choices about the impact of their (and others) actions.
Some might argue that this task does not fall under the purview of the school. But, as Town has said, there are a number of other reasons to teach environmental science. It is a great hook for getting students interested in science and math. And there is an occupational component -- green jobs, some claim, are the way of the future. Schools need to ensure students are prepared to fill them. The Partnership for 21st century skills considers environmental literacy, a key requirement for success in the global community.
Sometimes opportunities for environmental education occur by chance. For example, at Maryland's Crellin Elementary School, science camp students noticed orange water seeping from a playground area into a stream. Investigation revealed that the seepage was acid mine drainage from water flowing under coal and mine waste that had been spilled back when Crellin was a coal mining town. The school and community joined forces, working together to reclaim the land and develop an environmental education lab for use by the school.
But environmental issues should also be deliberately addressed, either in science, math, social studies or other courses (see the National Education Association's collection of resources for sample lessons), or in dedicated environmental science courses, like Town's. His students have designed green buildings and developed new, greener transportation plans for their community. He also engaged his students in creating the Cool School Challenge. They measured the carbon footprint for everything that happened in their school (from transportation to electricity to heating and waste). With partners, they developed a replicable model for reducing the carbon footprint of a school (available for free on the web) and got buy-in from their school community to implement it.
As is evidenced by the Cool School Challenge (and energy conservation programs in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, York County, Virginia, and Scarsdale, New York, to name just a few examples), the school's two roles in environmental protection are not mutually exclusive. Most schools and districts that have successfully decreased their environmental footprint have done so in a comprehensive manner that includes both administrator actions and educational experiences for students. As we look forward to Earth Day, hopefully more schools and districts will follow their lead.