Research Summary

How to Go Green: Creating a Conservation Culture in a Public High School Through Education, Modeling, and Communication

Creating a Conservation Culture

The Journal of Environmental Education

Rocky Mountain High School is a school of over 1,700 students located in Fort Collins, Colorado. Between 2001 and 2007, the school reduced its energy use by 50 percent, outperforming other schools in the same district. Interested in what led to this phenomenon, the authors conducted a case study of the school’s holistic approach to sustainability education. They focused on the roles of models of sustainable behavior in the form of individual role models, facilities and operations, governance, and school culture.

This study’s authors looked for evidence of individual role models in the form of administrators, teachers, and students. Several individuals and groups were seen as leaders and educators who inspired others. The principal was firmly behind the conservation program. Students credited the environmental studies teacher for helping them understand the importance of environmentally responsible behavior. This teacher’s encouragement and reminders also motivated other teachers. The teachers and staff overall strove to serve as role models through their own conservation behavior. The environmental club modeled environmentally responsible behavior, spread conservation messages, and inspired others to act. All together, these individual role models helped develop school pride around conservation.

School governance structures also contributed to the conservation education at the school, involving many stakeholders in conservation and resource use decisions. For example, the head custodian was involved in administration meetings and given responsibility to make decisions. The custodians then felt empowered to make changes in their routines to conserve energy and resources. Some changes implemented by custodians included turning off the regular lights after the school day and using only the emergency lighting during the evening. Students were also involved in decision making. The environmental club was given money from rebates on energy conservation and spent it on purchasing wind power. Participatory governance enhanced both individual and group efficacy in conservation efforts.

School culture, another component of modeling, also played an important role in conservation education. The school embraced conservation and it pervaded the organization. The school newspaper often featured articles on environmental topics. Through the principal’s leadership, school slogans of “the Lobo [school mascot] Way” and “Care and Repair” were widely understood as energy conservation, and caring for existing equipment and repairing things, respectively.

In addition to modeling, communication also served a vital role in the school’s energy conservation. The four types of messages that affected conservation education and action were: behavioral expectations; knowledge; energy and resource data use; and conservation accomplishments. In particular, school stakeholders noted the importance of “receiving information about their energy use and the outcomes of their actions.” This took the form of interpersonal communication, emails, announcements, school newsletters, the school newspaper, and posters. Overall, the communication was found to be educational and inspirational.

The authors concluded that interactions within the four modeling and communication components created a successful energy conservation program. Education efforts both contributed to and benefited from the integrated nature of the energy conservation program.

The Bottom Line

This study highlighted the value of an integrated approach to conservation for changing environmental behavior within an organization. Charismatic role models for sustainability, both staff and students, can play an instrumental role in creating a school-wide culture of environmental awareness and behavior change. In particular, this study highlighted the importance of not just classroom activities but also school practices, governance, and extracurricular experiences in sustainability education.