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August 22, 2011

Smart Schools are Engaging Students With Sustainability

Rita Habermanby Rita Haberman

Brightworks Sustainability Advisor

Summer days are getting shorter and that “back to school” feeling is in the air. That feeling might be disappointment or dread for some students, but there are innovative environmental programs creating a wave of excitement this fall too. The new Zilowatt program is bringing creative energy-related lessons and classroom signage to San Francisco Bay area schools. After our collaboration with the Hillsboro School District helped Jackson Elementary become the nation’s first Gold certified school under LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance, the Jackson students wrapped up their spring by celebrating with an enthusiasm we hope carries into this next academic year.

Why is integrating sustainability into school curricula so exciting to students, teachers, school administrators and parents? Sustainability can make what students learn in school more relevant. Students are more interested when they can work on “real-world” problems that affect them, and come up with solutions using the skills they learn in class.

A shining example of this is the impressive turnaround of Al Kennedy Alternative High School in Cottage Grove, Oregon after its principal Tom Horn and staff very deliberately made Education for Sustainability the foundation of their curriculum. When students engaged in hands-on activities using sustainability concepts and practices to successfully design and build affordable homes, keep bees, plant trees and reduce their school’s operational costs through easy, no-cost behavioral changes, they wanted to do more. Students gained an unforgettable experience in eco-literacy.

An eco-literate citizenry is essential. Without it, the prospects are slim for solving our planet’s complex and interrelated ecological, economic and social challenges. Inspiring examples of schools embracing sustainability abound, but they are still the exception – not the norm. It’s time to engage our students in integrated sustainability education, so they can become the essential players—and leaders—of the sustainability movement.

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