Anyone who has ever had a 9-year-old understands the concept of the unanswerable question. While I've fielded my share from my son Ethan, there is one question he keeps lobbing at me that I can't even make up a good response to. "How come we keep cutting down the rainforest," he asks from the back seat of the car, when we're on a bike ride or sitting at the breakfast table.
I've tried arguing with the concept of "we" and pinning the blame on commercial logging and greedy governments, but that still doesn't satisfy me, never mind him. The best answer I've come up with so far is to try to make a difference ourselves. And that ties in directly with this month's cover story about energy conservation, "The Grass is Greener on This Side," page 42. We've all heard the jokes about how education is nearly immune to change, how it runs behind the business world in adapting new technologies, how many classrooms are still set up the same way they were when we were in the fourth grade.
There may or may not be good excuses for some of these deficiencies, but there is one area that school districts can take the lead in: saving energy. I say this because it makes sense for three reasons: saving energy wherever possible is the responsible thing to do; it can save school districts up to $1.5 billion a year; and it can help schools educate students about energy, conservation and how the two intersect.
School districts spend $6 billion annually on energy and the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that one of every four dollars are wasted. Ten percent can be saved simply by turning off unneeded lights, shutting down computers and leaving personal space heaters at home. The other 15 percent of the estimated savings would come from replacing outdated equipment.
If you don't believe that number, neither does Merrilee Harrigan, the director of education at the Alliance to Save Energy. "The 25 percent figure is conservative; it's probably higher than that in many, many schools," she says.
"Money is still a wonderful motivator," says Edgar Hatrick, superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools in Leesburg, Va. In the 12 years it has run an energy program, Hatrick says the district has been able to avoid $17 million in energy costs in its 68 schools. "That's bought some textbooks and teachers," he adds.
The reason I think this movement makes the most sense is because schools can use these measures to help educate students. Southwest Licking School District near Columbus, Ohio, recently made $1.6 million in school infrastructure improvements, including adding a small solar panel in its middle school. The solar panel has been integrated into the school's science curriculum and has allowed Superintendent Forest Yocum to sell a small amount of energy back to the power company. Besides bringing science education to life, schools are using the army of students to do some of their work. Students in Philadelphia mapped classroom temperatures and presented the data to the building engineer to fix their schools' uneven heating system.
Like many districts, Loudoun County tries to get students involved in conservation. It has an inspirational contest to design light switch covers to encourage turning unneeded lights off. "I'm convinced children can make a difference," Hatrick says. "I started wearing my seatbelt because my kids told me; I stopped smoking because my kids told me. I'm convinced children in school will affect behaviors at home."
Who knows, one 9-year-old's question may even lead to a satisfactory answer someday.