Hands-on Lessons from Green School Design to Foster Sustainability Thinking

Derr, V. . (2017). Teens, power tools, and green schools: Education for sustainability through a university environmental design program and middle school partnership. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 16, 129-138.

Green schools are designed to reduce environmental resource consumption and facilitate learning. However, to date, limited research has examined the role of green schools in promoting education for sustainability (EfS). This study addressed this gap by exploring the relationship between green building design and EfS in the context of a university-middle school partnership.

The partnership in this study was created in response to the redesign of a Colorado public middle school that was working toward the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. The partnership, which took place over the course of a semester, was formed between an undergraduate sustainable planning and design university class (15 students) and a middle-school applied science elective class (25 students). University students visited the middle-school class weekly to conduct hands-on lessons about water, living and sustainability systems, and design projects. The semester was divided into modules: In the first, middle-school students created a small-scale TerrAqua Column in plastic bottles to study the connections between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. In the second, students worked in small teams to design and build a larger-scale TerrAqua system using recycled materials collected during a visit to a local scrapyard. The third and final module focused on the middle school's green school design. Separate groups examined the new green roof, garden, and schoolyard.

In the author's role as instructor for the university course, she recorded field notes during the semester to capture university students' experiences and reflections, as well as her own reflections. She focused on perceptions of facilitating connections between the green school design and EfS through the partnership. In this context, she found that undergraduate university students reflected on the importance of group cohesion and active applied learning approaches to hold middle19 school students' attention and engage them in the overall design process. University students found that the middle-school students had diverse personalities and demonstrated a range of learning interests that, at times, made the collaboration challenging. University students adapted their approach and decided to assign each middle-school student a different role that leveraged their interest and strengths. In one group, for example, one student became “the artist” and another “the negotiator.” This fostered an appreciation of what each person could bring to the activity, a smoother collaborative working process, leadership, and the active participation of all students in the design-thinking process.

To guide the design process, university students created a Design Thinking Process Board for teams to use at each step: discovery, interpretation, ideation, experimentation, and evolution. This interactive process allowed for creativity, brainstorming ideas, group decision-making to solve problems and identify solutions, and shared learning both among middle-school students as well as between middle-school and university students through reflection, discussion, and action. Middle-school students were eager to participate in hands-on activities and use tools to build their own systems, and university students found that mixing discussion with action helped retain students' attention and keep them actively engaged in the process.

As a result of the partnership, university students expressed a greater awareness and appreciation of the value of students' active participation in the design of their own school environment. Through their experiences, university students came to appreciate that EfS is more than learning facts about green building or sustainable systems: it is also a process of learning to work with others, solve problems, find solutions, and apply sustainability thinking in decision-making.

After reading about exemplary green schools as part of their university course, university students identified two areas of missed opportunities for the new middle-school green building to promote EfS. First, the university students noted that no curriculum had yet been developed that specifically connected the new sustainability features with classroom learning. Second, the university students noted that the new green features were not yet being leveraged to support interaction and learning; the middle school students were not allowed to access the green features and had to view them through a window. Based on the university students' experiences, they suggested that giving students access to the green features and other interactive experiences would generate heightened interest among the middle-school students. For example, allowing student access to the green roof and more unstructured time in the garden would facilitate student connection with nature. These findings led the university and applied science middle-school student teams to develop specific recommendations for modifying some of the school spaces such as the new garden, in the hope of creating more opportunities for the green middle school to teach EfS.

The Bottom Line

<p>University-school partnerships that promote participatory design processes offer constructive avenues toward designing and building green schools that actively promote education for sustainability. Such partnerships provide opportunities for K–12 school students and university students to jointly learn about sustainability in instructive, engaging ways using school buildings and grounds as the learning pathways. Findings and outcomes from such partnerships can be empowering because they can be applied in a timely matter, with real-world consequences and benefits for the participants.</p>