Trends In Green

Building Teaching Tools

Like the evolution of educational theory from the 19th- and 20th-centuries — where students were seen as passive receivers of learning — to 21st-century education with its emphasis on creativity, critical thinking, communication, character and community — where learning is more active, engaging and collaborative — students and teachers are recognizing that their buildings are not passively sustainable; but that they are, instead, opportunities to actively learn. As designers, we can collaborate with the users to engage opportunities ranging from the landscape to building systems and, even, the curriculum.

Learning in the garden

There’s perhaps no better place for active learning than a garden. Long popular with early childhood programs; and now with growing interest in health and wellness, locally produced food, and language and culture, gardens are increasingly being integrated broadly into the curriculum for all ages. As the U. S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) case studies for a new Local Food Production credit show, gardens can range from expansive plots and greenhouses to small green roofs and roof-top hydroponic gardens.

“One of the best things about teaching gardening is that you can clearly see that ‘Aha! Moment’ when children make the connections and realize that, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s where my food comes from,’ ” says Kealy Rudersdorf, Washington, D.C.’s first full-time garden coordinator who teaches at Stoddert Elementary School. The 4,000-square-foot garden at Stoddert, designed as part of the comprehensive modernization of the school, has provided an opportunity for the school, the community and non-profits like DC Greens to come together to create exciting opportunities indoors and out that encourage children to observe, explore and learn. Tackling topics ranging from nutrition and how food choices can affect both the individual and the community, to the importance of soil, effects of erosion and the water cycle, gardens foster interdisciplinary, experiential and engaged learning.

Engaging net-zero energy

As sustainable rating systems like the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) move away from evaluating energy performance based on simply exceeding code requirements, and more toward demonstrations of how close a building is to achieving Net-Zero Energy (NZE), energy in our schools will move from passively consumed to actively managed, inspiring students and teachers to conserve.

Since NZE performance is measured by actual utility bills, beginning with the programming of the building, we work with the users to develop a realistic energy-use budget to realize the vision for a building that produces as much energy as it consumes. At the Martin Luther King Jr. School in Cambridge, Mass., we are designing online, real-time “green screens” that will enable users to decide how to expend or save energy, for example, by opening the shades and turning off the lights — which typically account for 20-percent of a building’s energy consumption. A NZE building like MLK, and its energy budget, will inspire on-going conversations with teachers, users, maintenance personnel and the community about how, as John Pears of Perkins Eastman has stated, “not to do without, but do differently.” For example, to reduce plug loads — over 30 percent of a typical building’s energy consumption — teachers opted to reduce the number of printers, coffee machines and other devices in their classrooms in favor of fewer, better and more energy-efficient devices in conveniently located workrooms. Connecting the garden to the cafeteria, users can even opt for menus with cold food days, conserving energy typically consumed by warming and cooking.

Integrating the curriculum

With these encouraging developments, schools are integrating sustainability throughout the curriculum and developing lessons and units that comply with nationwide guidelines for learning, teaching and assessment. At Stoddert Elementary, with the Green Education Foundation, the school tapped the new campus resources — ranging from the “geothermal” system, green roofs, recycled content and the garden — to offer at least 10 hours of “green building” instruction per student per year. New units establish goals, identify relevant standards and define what students will understand and what they will be able to do. They define how teachers should assess understanding and provide advice to implement the unit.

Empowering the students

As the old adage goes, the best way to learn about something is to teach it. Accordingly, little illustrates students’ engagement with sustainability better than student-led Energy Patrols, recycling teams and composting teams where they can engage each issue and educate others. By designing our buildings as sustainable campuses for active learning, they truly become teaching tools — ones that are empowering the next generation to sustain our environment, locally and globally.

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Authors

Sean O'Donnell is a principal with Perkins Eastman, an architectural practice specializing in sustainable, high-performance school design.

Jana Silsby is a principal with Perkins Eastman, an architectural practice specializing in sustainable, high-performance school design.

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