Tapping Creative Energy

Nov. 1, 2005
Schools can tap into student ideas to help facilities become more environmentally friendly and cost-effective.

School facility improvements typically are addressed by school administrators, school boards, parent and community supporters, and outside partners. But one resource within the schools often is overlooked for achieving even better, greener facilities — students. Students' sense of environmental responsibility, paired with their creativity and fresh approach to traditional business issues, can help schools become more environmentally friendly and cost-effective. By initiating student projects that evaluate and tackle environmental concerns at school facilities, school administrators not only can enrich their students' curriculum, but also might improve the administration's bottom line.

“Energy is the second largest expenditure after salaries and benefits,” says Blanche Sheinkopf, president of the Sheinkopf Group, which has coordinated the U.S. Department of Energy's EnergySmart Schools program. “Students can make a big difference to the environment, but also important is that when the kids get excited about a project, they will go home and get their parents on board. Then, even more positive changes can take place.”

Taking it on

Students often have demonstrated their sense of environmental stewardship through self-initiated projects. Some have started energy-savings programs within their schools.

“Students today foster a genuine interest in the environment and concern over the use of our natural resources,” says Dari Scott, vice president of programs for the National Energy Foundation. “They visualize the importance globally and focus on it personally. The majority are committed to change wasteful habits and take action to benefit their families, schools and communities.”

Some students make a difference in the classroom; other groups take their environmental education outside the classroom, whether on campus or nearby, to provide students a hands-on learning experience.

A class of high school juniors and seniors at Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pa., took it upon themselves, with guidance from their teacher, to restore and transform a vacant grist mill into an environmental action center and model for recycling, green technology and sustainable energy. This center provides students with a sense of how they can help their community and allows them to learn how to solve problems through practical applications.

K-12 schools can look to the work of many colleges and university students for examples of how to save energy. Student-led programs include recycling waste created after stadium football games, student-run organic gardens and using wind energy to provide power to residence hall rooms.

The University of South Carolina's energy-conservation activities and energy-education programs encourage students to focus their actions on campus facilities. To support these programs, the campus initiated a program to train 11 resident assistants in the school's new sustainably designed Living Learning Community on how to educate their floor residents on “green” living practices. Students are given access to a “technologies toolbox,” consisting of environmental resources and facts that will teach them how to save energy in the residence hall.

School administrators can review these examples for ideas on how to carry out similar programs. Other ideas:

  • Encourage students to turn off lights in empty classrooms.

  • Remind students to turn the water off tightly after using bathroom sinks.

  • Teach students not to waste paper.

  • Initiate student-led recycling projects.

  • Reinstate natural environments no longer in use, such as ponds.

  • Find innovative ways to use solar energy.

  • Show students how to promote energy-conservation ideas that already exist on campus.

  • Initiate clean-air campaigns.

Once school administrators establish a program, the next step is to demonstrate to students how they are helping save energy at schools and to recognize them for doing so.

Involving students will enrich their education and may save even more energy within schools than was thought possible.

Tanem is program manager for the K-12 and higher-education markets at Johnson Controls, Milwaukee.

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