The ABCs of A Green Education

Educating the youth of today about sustainability issues will benefit the environment tomorrow

While reminiscent of the many ranches that once occupied this region, the slowly turning windmill and large cisterns on the Roy Lee Walker Elementary School campus in McKinney, Texas, are not intended for decoration. They're examples of the many sustainable practices the school district has incorporated to protect the environment and teach environmental awareness through hands-on learning. The windmill and cisterns are parts of an irrigation system that collects rainwater from the school's roof, which is used to water the native plants and grasses that beautify the school grounds.

Decision for Sustainability
In 1998, the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) of Texas issued a request for proposals to provide a selected sustainability-consulting grant for a Texas school district that would construct a school with sustainability as a prime criteria.

Located about 30 miles north of Dallas in a rapid-growth community of approximately 10,000 students, the McKinney Independent School District (ISD) had a long-term commitment to energy efficiency in schools and prior success in school technology and sustainability. In 1992, the district renovated a 1930s campus into the Academic Competitiveness through Technology (ACT) Academy campus, which was one of the first campuses in the nation to have a massive application of computers for education. Based on its previous successes, McKinney ISD's school board adopted a resolution committing to build a sustainable school. SECO's Grant Selection Committee unanimously chose to split the grant between McKinney ISD and Austin ISD, awarding each district $200,000 to offset additional costs associated with designing a sustainable school prototype.

After attending numerous seminars and visiting the latest examples of sustainable schools, McKinney ISD staff and the selected architects, construction manager and other consultants developed a design concept for a sustainable elementary school. In April of 1999, McKinney ISD's Sustainable Elementary School Project was named one of Earth Day's Top 10 Environmentally Responsible Design Solutions in the United States. In June of 1999 school construction began, and Walker Elementary opened its doors to students in August of 2000.

Components of Sustainable Design
Sustainable design is environmentally sensitive architecture and engineering -- the ability to meet today's needs without compromising the resources available to future generations. To this end, the project's architect SHW Group Inc. and several consultants integrated SECO's State of Texas Eight Step Sustainable Building Program for new construction, including criteria for siting, materials, energy efficiency, water conservation, waste management, indoor air quality, pest management, and building maintenance, with other environmentally sensitive decisions. As a result, SHW Group developed a list of 13 components of sustainable school design, the majority of which were incorporated into the Walker Elementary project.

Site Planning, Landscape Design and Water Conservation

Sustainable school design requires an evaluation of the regional impacts of the school on the surrounding environment and an effort to retain existing landscape and natural features. The Walker Elementary site was ideal for both the environment and the community. "The site was the best location for a new school in this fast growing area," explained Russell Hagg, project manager for SHW Group. "Fortunately, the site is adjacent to a planned development with a tree-lined creek that makes for an impressive backdrop to the school."

During the project planning and design phases, the SHW Group team evaluated the life cycle stages of all construction materials, considering the basic raw materials, transportation distance of materials/equipment, recycling possibilities and the possibility of future renovations and demolition. The team selected materials and products based on currently available information and data from surveys sent to large manufacturers regarding specific product life cycle stages. The surveys were instrumental in selecting, developing and incorporating sustainable features into the project that otherwise would not have been included, according to SHW Group. In at least one instance, the survey stimulated a dialog between a project engineer and a local lighting manufacturer that resulted in the development of a new sustainable product for the school. To reduce the environmental effects of having building materials shipped from distant locations, other local manufacturers also were used whenever possible.

Incorporating environmentally friendly landscape design solutions, the Walker Elementary campus features native plants and grasses that are accustomed to the Texas heat and require less maintenance. The school's buffalo grass only needs to be mowed every six weeks instead of every seven days. Stormwater is collected and stored in one of six large cisterns, up to 68,000 gallons, for future irrigation.

Popular with school administration, teachers and students alike, Walker Elementary's learning areas are illuminated through the use of a daylighting system. "We enjoy this feature the most because it gives the school a very open, light feeling," said Deb Beasley, principal at Walker Elementary. "Of all the sustainable features, this probably impacts us the most because it changes throughout the day."

The system consists of daylight monitors that "scoop" natural daylight into the cafeteria and classrooms and evenly distribute the light throughout the space using a series of baffles. The classrooms are equipped with light level sensors that maintain a constant level of light, whether it is sunlight, fluorescent, or a combination of both. If teachers need to darken a room, they merely flick a switch on the wall and automated shades descend to cover the skylight. Motion sensors that turn off after seven minutes without motion detection also control the fluorescent lights. "I believe in the system wholeheartedly," said Debbie Bennett, a fourth grade teacher at the school. "We rarely ever turn on the lights in our classroom and it is such a calming presence. We are a friendly, warm school and I do believe that our daylighting is an integral part of that."

Lighting classrooms with sunlight may also improve student performance. According to a 1992 study conducted by the Alberta Department of Energy in Canada, students enrolled in schools where daylight was the principal source of internal lighting exhibited reduced absenteeism by 3.5 days per year, increased concentration levels, a significant reduction in library noise, better scholastic performance and more positive moods. "When children transfer into our school, they always comment on the 'feeling of our building,'" noted Bennett.

By reducing the need for fluorescent light during the day, the school hopes to see substantial reductions in its utility bills. The district estimates that the school will save about $50,000 a year due to energy and water conservation, an amount that will soon offset the extra cost of sustainable design and construction. The $8.5 million school costs about 15 percent more to build than a typical school. However, to reap the maximum benefits of daylighting, the teachers must learn to efficiently use a mostly unfamiliar system -- a responsibility that has been passed on to the students. The Watt Watchers, a group of fourth grade students, is responsible for checking classrooms to make sure the daylighting system is being used properly. "They can issue suggestions to teachers about how to use the system, and consequently energy resources, more efficiently," explained Beasley.

Other Sustainable Features
In addition to site and landscape design, rainwater collection, and a daylighting system, Walker Elementary features numerous other sustainable components. Designers maximized the building's energy efficiency by using light colors for roofing and wall finish materials and high R-value wall and ceiling insulation. The school building is also placed on an east-west axis, which maximizes the effectiveness of the daylighting system. Eight large solar panels on the roof heat the school's water. "They provide plenty of hot water for our needs, but it probably wouldn't be enough for a middle school or high school where students might be taking frequent showers," Beasley noted.

During school construction, the project team considered energy efficient mechanical and ventilation systems and maximized the use of recycled and enviro-friendly products, including walls finished with a combination of cork board and galvanized panels and floors covered with recyclable carpet tiles. Designers took care to eliminate sources of potentially harmful contaminants and discomfort by minimizing building materials and furnishings containing toxins and using natural ventilation wherever possible.

Eco Education
The Walker Elementary School building was intended to become part of the educational program, so every effort was made in the design to provide learning opportunities through the building's various sustainable components. "The building's design allows us to integrate environmental science into classroom teaching," explained Beasley.

Immediately inside the school's main entryway, for example, is a clear, glass graduated cylinder that serves as a rainwater gauge that shows how many gallons of rainwater are currently stored in the school's cisterns. When water storage exceeds 60,000 gallons the gauge overflows. "The kids absolutely love it when it overflows," laughed Beasley. "They get really excited. It's almost like a party or something."

Through the help of a real-time weather station, students actually can predict rain and monitor local weather conditions. Many teachers require their classes to track, monitor, and chart the information gathered from the weather station computer. While it's currently available only on one central computer, Beasley said she hopes to extend the weather program to each individual classroom in the near future.

Extending from the rain gauge station, students can follow the path of the school's emergency sprinkler system, whose components were painted red and left exposed for that purpose. A glass wall, or "display case," allows students to see what is behind the walls of the school, including the air conditioning and heating systems and hot water storage units. The school's teachers can use both exposed elements to illustrate lessons about systems.

In the school's library, students can do more than read about the rock cycle and fossil formation -- they can experience it firsthand. The library features a natural limestone wall with numerous fossils. "You'll often see the students up on the walls doing rubs of the fossils," Beasley said. "It's a great teaching tool."

The building's lessons extend beyond its doors. Outside, students can tell time using one of two sundials. "They like that they can explain why the sundial isn't accurate during daylight savings time," said Bennett.

Both the students and teachers look forward to using the school's greenhouse and raised bed gardens for growing herbs, vegetables, and even butterfly gardens. A "victory garden" allows students to observe native plants and is maintained by the Environmental Science Club, a group consisting of nearly 100 parents and students. The club also is in charge of the school's composting bin.

Bennett's fourth grade class and Katy Svoboda's first grade class both enjoy the eco pond, a synthetic pond that is frequently used for water experiments. "The students like to explore nature in and around the pond area," said Svoboda.

Yet, the pond's benefits extend beyond science instruction. The school's art classroom opens to this outdoor area, allowing the students to use the environment as inspiration. "The art teacher has even used the pond's lily pads to introduce a unit on Monet," Beasley said, referring to the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet who was famous for his landscapes.

While incorporating the building's sustainable features into the classroom curriculum is not required of teachers, Walker makes sure that students are at least exposed to the majority of the components. Each year the school holds a Sustainability Fair where groups of students study the different features of sustainability. "What we're basically trying to do is create environmentally aware kids," explained Beasley. "We want them to see the importance of being environmentally cautious."

An Eco Trend
Since Walker's construction, McKinney ISD has built three additional sustainable elementary schools in the district. Except for slight modifications, all three were modeled after Walker.

Sustainable school design continues throughout Texas. A co-recipient of the original SECO grant, Austin ISD's J.J. Pickle Elementary School still serves as a sustainability model for other districts. SHW Group also incorporated similar high-performance features in the design of Bransom Elementary in Burleson, Texas.

Walker Elementary's influence has extended beyond state borders, with school districts around the country following its lead. Other sustainable or high-performance schools are currently in use or in various stages of completion in Oregon, Washington, California, Wisconsin and New Jersey.

Both SHW Group and the McKinney school district feel the environmental message is particularly effective at the elementary school level. "The idea was to instill in the students at an early age that resources are in a limited supply and the future generations will need to consider the consequences," explained Hagg.

Beasley agreed, "Elementary students are with one teacher all day. That teacher is better able to help the kids make environmental connections throughout the day."

Like many other suburban communities, McKinney's rapidly growing population may soon force environmental issues to the forefront. In a recent Dallas Morning News article, experts predicted that at the end of the upward arc growth, McKinney's population could grow from its current 73,000 residents to a city of nearly 350,000 -- a population only nearby Dallas, Forth Worth, and Arlington are expected to exceed. The article reported that the city is hiring economists, planners, and consultants to help city leaders decide where to put the parks, infrastructure, homes, businesses, and schools of future generations.

Fortunately, if McKinney ISD succeeds, that future generation will not be a stranger to environmental conservation. And, according to Beasley, the message already is making its way home through the students. "The parents are telling us that their kids are asking them to watch the amount of water they use and to turn off the lights," she said. "The school and the kids are raising community awareness."


This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2004 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Valerie Weadock is the former associate editor of Water & Wastewater Products, Environmental Protection, and Occupational Health & Safety. To contact the author, please correspond with Dana Corbin, editor of Water & Wastewater Products. She can be reached at (972) 687-6746.

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