Asumag 6451 Green Graduation Cap

Sustainable Learning

Aug. 19, 2017
Turning high-performing facilities into buildings that teach.

In the last two to three decades, higher education has developed a remarkable appreciation for and commitment to sustainable buildings and landscapes. Coinciding with that commitment, students have expressed undeniable interest in attending schools that have embraced clear and compelling sustainability objectives.

But are students truly learning from the high-performing buildings and landscapes on their college and University campuses? Are there opportunities to study sustainability or systems outside their chosen major? Are students taking those sustainability lessons with them after they graduate? If education’s core mission is education itself, are enough resources being dedicated to sustainable learning in the midst of the largest building and infrastructure projects?

These questions are the basis for a new methodology, one that seeks to turn high-performing buildings into buildings that teach.

Student engagement

Prospective U.S. college students have a greater interest in sustainability than ever before. Around 63 percent of the 10,300 respondents to The Princeton Review's “2008 College Hopes and Worries Survey” indicated that they would value information about a college’s commitment to the environment, and that it might affect their decisions on where they attend. 

In a 2008 survey by UCLA's Higher Ed Research Institute of 240,580 first-year full-time students at 340 four-year institutions, almost 45 percent said that adopting “green” practices to protect the environment is “essential” or “very important” to them. So if prospective students place increasing value on an institution’s commitment to sustainability, one would think that students would find engagement with those practices in their choice of institution.

But even though higher education students report continued enthusiasm for sustainability, surveys of college students show low engagement and knowledge attainment. For example, in “Sustainability Literacy as a Bridge to Addressing 21st-Century Problems,” a quality enhancement plan at the College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C., a survey found that 88 percent of respondents have never engaged in the application of sustainability at the college. And 85 percent of respondents indicated that they would “like to have more opportunities to learn about sustainability and sustainable practices for my community.” 

These findings are supported in a 2012 doctoral dissertation, “Green Student Centers’ Influence on the Campus Environment,” by Krista Harrell, who was a student at Old Dominion University and now is an associate dean of students at the University of South Alabama. In researching three recently constructed student union projects, Harrell discovered that although the buildings are high-performers by nearly all measures of energy and environmental performance, only a small percentage of the student body at each institution was aware of the buildings’ sustainable attributes.

Few students could reference the buildings’ sustainability accreditations, which aspects of sustainability the building employed, or had active participation in the buildings’ continued performance.

The absence of deep engagement in these high-performing projects may be surprising, but in some respects is understandable. The LEED rating system, now an almost ubiquitous standard for sustainability, has historically focused on building performance rather than sustainability education (a feature that typically receives an innovation credit).

With educational institutions making sizable investments in sustainable infrastructure, how can these investments be used as learning tools? The answer is complex. It could involve everything from required funding for curricula and instructors, familiarity with sustainable strategies and operations, a greater focus on educational objectives, or the logistics of engaging students with buildings that need to remain operational. Hence, there is a need for a different methodology, one that shifts the culture of sustainability on the higher education campus toward performance and education.

The pedagogical framework

There are many facets to a methodology focused on buildings (and landscapes) that teach. One of the first steps should be an alignment between an institution’s strategic plan and its sustainable learning goals. Does the school want to be known for sustainability education? Should sustainability education be its own discipline or open to a larger group of students (if not the entire campus)? What degree of sustainable learning does the institution hope to achieve and how many students will be engaged? These questions start to make up a pedagogical framework. In order to assist colleges and universities with this range of choices, a “sustainability learning pyramid” can be developed to show different learning platform—from the most passive to the most active levels of engagement.

This framework offers two particular aspects to colleges and universities; clear platforms for more active sustainable learning and the possibility of progression or differentiation between different groups of students. Each institution can choose the level of engagement that is appropriate for its strategic and student outcomes.

The Life Cycle Framework

The previous framework focuses on the level of pedagogical engagement; the life cycle framework focuses on the different lessons that are available at various stages of a building’s existence. Because sustainable buildings and landscapes have long lifespans, each segment of life offers different learning potential. The building’s life cycle learning potential occurs in six major timeframes: planning, design, construction, opening, maintenance, and renewal.

The planning timeframe includes site analysis and the feasibility of a new building and landscape. In studying this phase, students could analyze sites and potential campus developments for their sustainability potential. They may consider climate, local resources, and community needs, alongside student and campus objectives.

The design timeframe is where students can follow a building or landscape’s design process and which sustainable strategies are priorities. In the course of this timeframe, students could study the sustainability strategies available to the design team, determine which strategies are most valuable to the project, and debate why an institution might prioritize a specific strategy. Students could look at the embodied energy of a project and where resources come from for a building’s construction.

The construction timeframe could include a whole series of learning encounters, such as hard-hat site visits, sustainable installations, or observing the conservation of natural resources during construction. Students could even participate in hands-on elements of the sustainable construction, such as the installation of a green roof tray system and monitoring of its growth cycle.

The opening timeframe of a sustainable building includes balancing and fine-tuning the mechanical systems, monitoring the performance of sustainability systems that were prescribed in the design, and seeing exactly how they perform against original expectations. There is a potential for valuable post-occupancy analysis with the help of students, facilities personnel, and university design staff.

The maintenance timeframe is the longest phase in a building’s life cycle and involves the continual operation of a building. This phase refines the performance of existing systems, and adjusts to new systems as a building or landscape ages. This is the timeframe in which the practice level of the Sustainable Learning Pyramid can have a great impact on a building’s continued performance.

Renewal is the final timeframe (or the first, depending on your perspective) of a building’s lifespan. Students, along with administrators and project teams, can imagine the next life of a facility or site, the potential for adaptive reuse, and how certain elements could be repurposed for future performance and education.

The Resource Framework

To carry out a plan for buildings and landscapes that teach, administrators should take into account what resources will be needed. Let’s start with the most obvious: Money. Some of the financial resources for such a program may already be in place. Sustainability may already be taught as a core discipline. Perhaps the institutional objectives for sustainable learning are simply a function of shifting those resources toward deeper engagement with buildings and landscapes on campus. Alternatively, if sustainable learning isn’t already part of the financial fabric of an institution, it could set aside a portion of a project’s initial construction budget or a portion of annual energy savings (as a result of sustainable strategies) as a way to pay for educational programs.

After funding, administrators will likely want to discuss staff and human resource needs. Does an institution have the expertise to engage students in buildings that teach? This might require new partnerships among sustainability faculty, building managers, and campus design staff. How do we give professionals the time and support to engage with students in a new way?

Finally, administrators should consider the spatial and operational resources necessary to provide a sustainable learning program. Does a building project need to provide greater access to students for “behind the scenes” operations? Are there more elements of the building that are adjustable? What curricula or interdisciplinary studies need to be established?

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