By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Sunny Galbraith works with students who have the honor of hacking up apples and other garbage for worm composting.
On April 22, more than 1 billion people around the globe participated in Earth Day by voicing their appreciation of the planet and demanding its protection. Schools do their part by teaching the next generation to save our planet from global warming and pollution, and protect plant and animal species from extinction.
The following stories look at how some CTA members are going green in their classrooms and schoolyards and how it boosts students’ academic achievement and saves money for schools. They also offer resources and tips for going greener at your own school.
Worms aren’t “yucky” to Cupertino High School students. The critters are lovingly tended to in compost bins, where they digest lunch leftovers and make fertilizer for an organic vegetable garden.
At Walnut Grove Elementary School in Pleasanton, the school’s solar panels are incorporated into the curriculum, and students can view online — in real time — how much power is being produced at their school site.
In South Tahoe High School’s auto shop class, students are converting a dune buggy into an electric vehicle and cooking up clean alternative fuel from french fry oil.
Environmental education is thriving at some California schools despite budget cuts. Whether it’s worm bins, recycling, organic gardens or solar power, schools are finding creative ways to go green. In the process, students learn about their world, respect nature, and become better prepared for the future.
Some associate the green movement with tree huggers, but it is important for everyone to be environmentally conscious, says James W. Reede Jr., an environmental science professor at CSU Sacramento and an electric transmission systems engineer at the California Energy Commission.
“It’s important to teach students about environmentalism so they will be well-rounded, will be sensitive to the world around them, and will know what they can do to make it better.”
Students of all ages should understand the “damage we are causing to our planet,” says Reede. “This past year the polar ice pack has shrunk to the smallest it’s ever been. Polar bears are drowning. Our planet is heating up, and over the past 30 years 85 percent of glaciers in California have melted. Many creatures are moving to higher elevations because they can’t stand the heat. Due to global warming, our sea level is rising. Some communities, such as Foster City, will be underwater someday.”
The California Faculty Association member believes schools should embrace green technology, which he sees as the wave of the future. “Green jobs will offer our students wonderful opportunities, and schools should be preparing students for these jobs of the future.”
Such jobs might include organic farming, building energy-efficient buildings, and manufacturing products that do not harm the environment.
Lean, GREEN learning machines
Students in Mike Patterson’s South Tahoe High School auto shop class are converting a dune buggy from gas to electric power. It may be the first electric-powered dune buggy in existence.
Vocational education classes at the school have been emphasizing green technology and alternative fuel since 2008, says Patterson, a member of the South Tahoe Educators Association and chair of the Capital Service Center Council.
“We live in such an environmentally sensitive area in Lake Tahoe that we felt it was very important to give our students the skills and knowledge to maintain our lifestyles without destroying the beautiful environment around us,” says Patterson. “The first thing students learn is the proper way of recycling waste materials, so hazardous waste is not created.”
Jaqui Searight, a senior in his class, is proud to be on the cutting edge. “It’s important to have green energy — and for schools to be thinking green,” she says. “It is definitely a way of helping the planet.”
In addition to learning how to work on electric and hybrid vehicles, students work with alternative fuel. Patterson recently obtained a device that will convert french fry oil, donated from local restaurants, into biodiesel fuel.
“There are better opportunities for students when they are learning green technology,” says Patterson. “My students will definitely have a leg up in the automotive industry.”
In Kathryn Peters’ class at Walnut Grove High School in Pleasanton, students study the “Four R’s”: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot. The rotting takes place in worm bins where leftover lunch food is composted.
“Recycling food waste is so easy,” she explains to fourth- and fifth-graders during a Valentine’s Day lesson titled “I Love Worms.” “You are sitting next to rot now. And it doesn’t smell bad, does it?”
Students learn that worms like eating coffee grounds and egg shells, and go from making “worm poop” to fertilizer called “vermicompost.” Each student is handed plastic gloves, a pile of worms mixed with dirt from the composting bin on a paper plate, and a magnifying glass to study the process.
“It’s important to teach them about the environment in a way that is developmentally appropriate” because younger students could become traumatized to learn that global warming is causing polar bears to drown or increases cancer rates, says Peters, a member of the Association of Pleasanton Teachers (APT).
“You want to engage students and help them feel a connection so they will ask questions and consider the results of their actions. My intention is to make them become stewards of their environment. It’s wonderful, because students have a natural appreciation for being outside.”
PV on a Stick
The Walnut Grove district has solar panels on many buildings, and students can go to the school’s website and see in real time how much power is being produced and consumed. In 2008, the Pleasanton Unified School District became one of the first and largest school districts in the nation to go solar.
It began when the district mounted a 1-kilowatt solar cell on a pole in the playground. It’s called “PV on a stick.” The PV (photovoltaic) cell converts solar radiation into electric current using semiconductors. That performed well, so the district worked out a deal with Honeywell Building Solutions to develop and install solar panels producing 680 kilowatts of power in seven of the district’s schools.
“When we talk about renewable and nonrenewable energy, it is something real to students,” says Carol Kato, a science teacher for grades 1-5. “We’ve done experiments where we’ve had a blackout for one hour. Then we see on our computer how much electricity is needed just to have the lights come on. It’s amazing to see that dip — and that’s a great teaching tool.”
Kato ties solar energy into the science curriculum whenever possible. In her classroom she has a scary-looking monster with a sign around its neck that reads, “Don’t be an energy vampire.” She uses the prop to emphasize energy-saving methods students can share with their families. For example, students put energy tips on refrigerator magnets at home to serve as reminders.
“My magnets say that you should turn off lights when you leave the room, not take long showers, only use the dishwasher when there are tons of dirty dishes, and put on a sweater instead of turning up the heat,” student Josephine Lam says.
After lunch, Walnut Grove Elementary students don’t dump garbage into a trash can and head back to class. Instead, students line up and carefully separate lunch remains into bins for paper, plastic, aluminum and wet garbage.
“More schools should do this,” says Kato, also an APT member. “It makes kids think about the world they are part of and how they can contribute to making this a cleaner environment. Environmentalism becomes personal and makes a huge difference in how they think.”
Kids blossom going GREEN
Meanwhile, at Cupertino High School, being environmentally conscious makes students feel better about themselves, says Jason Heskett, a special education teacher. His students, who have mild to moderate learning disabilities, recycle most everything. Students started with bottles and cans five years ago and expanded to include cell phones, printer cartridges, juice pouches, chip bags and food scraps from the culinary arts department and cafeteria. Used foodstuffs are put in a worm bin for composting to make fertilizer for the garden.
James Athans, 14, says it makes him feel good to recycle cell phones, which otherwise might end up in the landfill, where the battery acid might cause harm to the environment.
Students also collect footwear for Soles for Souls (www.soles4souls.org), which distributes used shoes to disaster victims and poor people worldwide. Heskett’s students have increased environmental awareness throughout the district, which now has solar panels, thanks to the passage of a bond measure.
“Students run their projects like it was a job,” explains Heskett, president of the Fremont Education Association. “They maintain relationships with others by collecting items, documenting how much they collect, and keeping the school informed about recycling on our website [sites.google.com/site/mrheskettssite]. They even give presentations in the community. They learn to think beyond themselves. This program has helped them blossom as people.”
The color of SUCCESS
“We learn by doing,” says Annie Turner, a member of the Atascadero District Teachers. “Our goal is to apply everything we are learning to the real world and make it relevant.”
Turner is the coordinator of Atascadero High School’s Green Academy in San Luis Obispo County, which offers core subjects with a “green twist” relating to the environment and sustainable energy, especially when it comes to math and science. Students call themselves the “Greenhounds,” since the school’s regular mascot is a greyhound. They tend an organic garden, compost and recycle, as well as do beach cleanup, creek restoration, and other environmental projects.
At-risk students were intentionally selected for the academy, which includes special education students, English learners, emotionally disturbed students, and others with an environmental interest.
“Our population is more diverse and more at risk than the high school overall, yet we have the most improved GPA of students and test scores [compared with] other students at our school,” says Turner.
Numerous studies show that environmental education promotes learning and can actually raise student achievement because it promotes critical thinking and problem-solving. According to www.classroomearth.org, “environmental educators often find that students who fail in a traditional school setting can succeed when the natural outdoor environment becomes the students’ classroom.” It also encourages students to take long-term views and take action for the common good.
Environmental education also helps address “nature deficit disorder,” a condition linked to children spending so much time indoors watching television and playing video games, which can cause obesity, loneliness, depression, attention problems and isolation.
GREEN keeps district out of the red, promotes nutrition
While most school districts are cutting back, the Twin Hills School District in Sonoma County has added art, music and technology classes while maintaining small class sizes without layoffs. Part of the reason is the district’s commitment to sustainability.
The district runs on solar power, says Sunny Galbraith, a math, science and independent study teacher at Orchard View School. It installed electric vehicle charging stations in its parking lot, started a recycling program, and has composted 20,000 pounds of garbage over the past few years, she estimates.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it,” says Galbraith, a member of the Twin Hills Teachers Association (THTA). “The solar panels have saved a lot of money on our electric bills. We’ve been able to keep enrichment programs such as art, science and music.”
The district passed a bond measure to pay for solar panels, which were installed last summer. Three years ago Galbraith wrote a grant for a large organic school garden at Apple Blossom School, which is maintained by students.
Every day at lunchtime Galbraith and some of her students walk next door to Apple Blossom to help “composting teams” of elementary students, selected each week for the honor of hacking up apples and other assorted garbage for worms to eat. The students love it.
“It’s fun, good for the environment, and you get to smash stuff,” says fifth-grader Ryan Pearson enthusiastically.
“They absolutely love the garden,” says first-grade teacher and THTA member Meg Scherfee. “It’s a great teaching tool. We cook what we grow and measure ingredients for math. For science, we can study everything from insects to plant life to weather. During art, they sketch in the garden.”
Scherfee says she was pleasantly surprised to discover that the garden encourages students to eat their vegetables.
“If they plant something, they will eat it,” she says. “When we picked Swiss chard they looked at me like I was nuts, and the next thing you know they were chomping on leaves like lollypops and asking for seconds. This is why we have a garden.”