How green schools bring environmental science alive

Being around solar panels and rain barrels every day helps students recognize their impact
By: | February 7, 2020
In their green school room, students at Grant Elementary School in Columbia, Missouri, participated in environmental science activities such as recycling, growing native plants and collecting rainwater.In their green school room, students at Grant Elementary School in Columbia, Missouri, participated in environmental science activities such as recycling, growing native plants and collecting rainwater.

Green school buildings make sustainability and environmental science real in a way that helps students understand their roles in the natural world.

And these are concepts that can be difficult even for many adults to grasp.

Fifth-graders at Grant Elementary School in Missouri’s Columbia Public Schools spent last school year in a specially designed portable classroom called the Eco-Schoolhouse. The green school room—which features solar panels, an airlock entry to keep heating or cooling in, energy-efficient insulation and plenty of natural light–doubled as a 3-D textbook.

Though there was no specific green-building curriculum taught, the fifth-graders still studied environmental science and sustainability.


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They grew native plants in the garden, collected water from rain barrels and took charge of recycling, among other activities, says Laura Zangori, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri College of Education who studied the impact the Eco-Schoolhouse had on the students’ learning.

“The students each began to see themselves as someone who is supporting the environment,” says Zangori, who, along with fellow researcher Laura Cole, compared the students attitudes to those of a neighboring class in a regular portable.

For one, the Eco-Schoolhouse students came to understand that trees had to be cut down to make room for their classroom.

“Just being in the building helped them connect what’s going on in their building with how it impacts the surrounding area,” Zangori says.

The Eco-Schoolhouse at Grant Elementary School was specially designed to serve as a 3-D textbook. It has solar panels, an airlock entry to keep heating or cooling in, energy-efficient insulation and plenty of natural light.

The Eco-Schoolhouse at Grant Elementary School was specially designed to serve as a 3-D textbook. It has solar panels, an airlock entry to keep heating or cooling in, energy-efficient insulation and plenty of natural light.

They also gained a clear idea about how sunlight hitting their solar panels meant less coal was used at a faraway power plant to provide electricity to their classroom, says Cole, an assistant professor of architectural studies at the University of Missouri.


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The pair of researchers are now planning to develop a green building curriculum for elementary school that will focus on the positive contributions children can make to a sustainable environment, she says.

“It plants some seeds in students to understand the impact of our built environment, and that there are different solutions than conventional building,” Cole says.