Green-Infused Curriculum Wins National Recognition for High School

High school students and worm compost bins
Students check their worm compost bins.

Not many schools can claim that they infuse their entire curriculum with the concepts and investigations of Project Learning Tree and the PLT GreenSchools program. But that’s exactly the case with Renaissance High School, an alternative school serving students in grades 9 through 12 in Clarkston, Michigan. The school’s entire academic program is infused with green, with the goal of making its students “responsible citizens, stewards of the Earth, and knowledgeable about the environmental challenges they will face as tomorrow’s leaders,” according to Principal Billie Pambid.

Not only is Renaissance the first high school in Michigan to be designated a Certified PLT GreenSchool, but the school also earned a prestigious national Green Ribbon School designation from the U.S. Department of Education.

“Having worked for years at various schools in either Principal or curriculum roles, I was acquainted with PLT, and loved everything about it,” says Kathy Yeloushan, a retired educator who returned to school as a curriculum consultant at Renaissance. “When I came here, I decided to get involved again with PLT, and learned about the GreenSchools program. It seemed like a perfect fit for Renaissance. Billie’s vision for the school was to infuse sustainability throughout the curriculum. PLT GreenSchools gave us a way to do that.”

All of the math and science teachers at Renaissance have been trained in PLT, but incorporating environmental sustainability into the curriculum doesn’t stop with math and science courses. “We have incorporated the environment into who we are and what we believe in as a whole school,” says Principal Pambid.

School Site Investigation

Using data from their investigations, students solicited help from district grounds staff and members of the community to develop a “bioswale” of salt- and drought-tolerant native plants to reduce the amount of runoff from pavement into the stormwater drainage system. The bioswale area became an outdoor classroom to study native flora and fauna, measure project outcomes, and resolve unexpected problems.

Picnic TablesThe picnic tables for the outdoor learning lab were designed by the school’s geometry students, who also conducted research on ergonomic design to assure that the tables would be comfortable for the students who used them. A PLT GreenWorks! grant provided funding for the picnic table materials.

Renaissance students grow organic tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce for consumption in the school’s cafeteria and collect data on their gardens’ productivity and plant health. They have cultivated a working worm farm to enrich soil used to enrich plants around the school building. Produce is grown in both traditional soil-based gardens and vertical hydroponic gardens, and statistics students collected data to compare the productivity of the two growing methods to test the hypothesis that hydroponic gardens are more productive. A Grand Rapids company, Venntis, turned to Renaissance students to collect data on plants grown with an experimental LED light the company has developed for hydroponic greenhouses.

Energy Investigation

As a result of Renaissance students’ work, the school’s greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced by 51 percent, and non-transportation energy use has been cut in half. Energy-saving activities earned the school EPA EnergyStar awards every year.

Ten Renaissance science teachers and students have received training on use and development of solar panels. The school’s conceptual physics students are developing a solar charging station to offset energy used by indoor growing lights used to raise lettuce and other vegetables for the school cafeteria.

Water Investigation

Located near the Great Lakes, which supply 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, water issues are a centerpiece of the Renaissance HS curriculum. The school’s faculty has designed a semester where every class is taught through the green lens and the theme of water. For example, civics class are taught by examining laws, conflicts, and government surrounding the use and regulation of water. English students write research papers based on water-themed lessons in other classes. Students are encouraged to investigate water-related jobs and gain information to make informed decisions regarding water in the future.

Waste and Recycling Investigation

Renaissance has an ongoing recycling program for paper, plastic, printer cartridges, aluminum, glass, and cardboard. With a GreenWorks! grant from Project Learning Tree, the school purchased visible, easy-to-use recycling bins for students and community. The recycling program is carried out by students from a post-high-school program that provides opportunities for young people with special needs. “We share a building with this special ed program, and they take care of collecting all the things we recycle,” says Pambid.

Teacher Tips

Getting Started

Tips from Principal Billie Pambid:

“If our students are going to be the stewards of saving our planet, they need to know about all the issues,” Pambid notes.

  • Give it time. This kind of program can’t happen in a year.
  • You have to have a dedicated person to coordinate a program like this. That’s what Kathy Yeloushan has done for us.
  • Go slow. Start with one teacher partnership and expand from there, building on what you’ve learned.
  • Involve the kids. Let them decide what they want to learn.
  • Don’t give up.

Tips from curriculum developer Kathy Yeloushan:

To make the curriculum locally relevant, Renaissance has built a number of courses around the challenges facing the Great Lakes. “Living in Michigan we’re surrounded by 20 percent of the world’s fresh water,” notes curriculum specialist Yeloushan.  “I want our citizens to care about it, and protect it, and to use it for the benefit of everyone in the state. So we use a team teaching approach to infuse water into the whole curriculum.”

An example is an ecology course that focuses on the 10 major threats affecting Lake Michigan, including invasive species. As a final project, students are required to develop a children’s book based on one invasive species. The book must explain the problem and its causes, possible future effects of the problem, what is being done to address the issue, the laws that apply, and what individuals can do to help.

  • Rethink how you teach and be willing to tell your students that you don’t know the answer. Work with your students to discover what you don’t know.
  • Understand that kids are very engaged. When it’s a good lesson, they’re willing to fail, and try again.
  • Understand that failure is not a big deal. It’s just a learning process. 

Students Restore Native Prairie in Wisconsin

Prairie Plant Demonstration GardenOnly 1% of natural prairie is left in Wisconsin today. Establishing a prairie with native plants at our school transformed our drain field into a learning resource for the community. In a few years, it’ll also become a seed source for native prairie plants.

The students completed a school site investigation and identified our school’s two-acre drain field as an area they wanted to improve. This area is highly visible and the students decided that by restoring it to native habitat, they could beautify our school grounds while creating a place for people to experience the natural world.

With the assistance of a GreenWorks! grant from PLT, we were able to create a large prairie with a plant demonstration garden on either end. Students in grades 4 through 8, along with community volunteers and supporters, came together to implement the project. 

Students determined which plants would thrive in our climate and soil type. They planted a mix of plant life that can best tolerate the sandy, dry conditions of our area. Students developed a watering schedule for the gardens and cultivated new plant plugs that were donated by a local greenhouse. They also constructed blue bird boxes and benches to provide shelter for birds and places for people to sit and rest along the trails.

Hear from the students:

NorthStar Community Charter School in Minong, Wisconsin, was awarded a GreenWorks! grant to transform a two-acre drain field into native prairie. Students in grades 4-8 worked together to generate ideas for the site after studying its condition and options for improvement.


Apply for a PLT GreenWorks! Grant

My best suggestion to future grant recipients is to be in contact with your school board and maintenance staff from the beginning. By having everyone on board from the point of application, it allows for the process to run smoothly.

To apply for your own GreenWorks! grant visit PLT’s grant application page. To become a registered PLT GreenSchool! and qualify for a larger grant award, learn more about PLT’s GreenSchools! program.


Raising Salmon in the Classroom

Raising salmon in your classroom is a truly unique learning experience.

Recently, my 7th grade class in St. Joseph, Michigan took on the challenge of raising Chinook salmon. We mirrored how the local Michigan Department of Natural Resources raises salmon by obtaining eggs in November. We cared for them as they hatched and grew, then releasing the fish in the Saint Joseph River in May.

Edwardsburg Middle School was awarded a PLT GreenWorks! grant to help fund this project to demonstrate animal lifecycles and the salmons’ influence on local ecosystems. The following is a personal account of the experience raising salmon in the classroom, written by Justin Scott, a 7th grade student.

Chinook Salmon Intrigues 7th Grade

Popping noises could be heard in Miss Cieniuch’s seventh grade classroom. The noises originated from the filters that ran from November to May, aiding the Chinook Salmon in surviving three of five stages; Alevin, Fry, and Smolt.

Our minuscule fish were born as Alevin. They were tiny slivers of fish, attached to a tiny
sack that disabled them from swimming; though their desperate attempts to swim amused the students quite a bit. As they germinated, they morphed into normal-looking grey and brown fish, though they still looked deformed at times.

Halfway through the Salmon Project, a serious issue presented itself. Early Mortality Syndrome was common this year, leaving us with only fifteen of the original two hundred fish by the 20th of January. Early Mortality Syndrome was caused by the deficiency in thiamine, or vitamin B1. This was due to the surplus of invading Alewives that the Salmon preyed on last year; completely depriving them of thiamine. This deficiency transferred to their children, genetically incapacitating the unfortunate fish.

On May 3rd, the salmon were released at the Jasper Diary DNR Boat Launch on the Saint Joseph River, and ten students and their families attended. They watched as the fish were slowly acclimated and released into the St. Joe. Paige Knisley.

A seventh grade student who had attended the release, stated that the fish were “happy to be in the river” and that she enjoyed the release immensely. Proceeding that wonderful day, this seventh grade class had achieved their goal: to spectate the surprising and intriguing lives of Chinook salmon, with a firsthand view of their exploits.

Have a service-learning project idea?


Bringing Nature into the Classroom

Nowhere are the challenges of a large urban high school more evident than they are at Central High School (CHS) in Newark, New Jersey. With more than 90% of the school’s 845 students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, the school qualifies as “disadvantaged” under the U.S. Department of Education’s Title I guidelines.

Becoming Guardians of the Earth

Boys in Greenhouse at Central High School, New JerseyBut try telling that to Vice Principal Lucinda Eason or to the approximately 160 students enrolled in Central High’s new Environmental Studies Academy. They are positive, engaged, and full of resolve to become “Guardians of the Earth.” They have filled the CHS grounds, classrooms, and hallways with green, living plants—signs of life, hope, and the ability to persevere in the face of difficulties, obstacles, and discouragement.

The curriculum for the Environmental Studies Academy, an academic track inaugurated at CHS in the 2013-2014 school year, is designed to prepare a new generation of environmental leaders committed to leaving the world a better place for future generations. PLT’s GreenSchools Investigations are fully integrated into the Botany and Environmental Data Analysis course curricula and PLT’s GreenWorks grants have helped grow an urban gardening program that is flourishing on the school grounds and in two indoor greenhouses.

“I’m a big fan of beautiful plants,” said Demetreous Bennett, a CHS student. “This academy is very exciting to me because I get to learn more about something I love, which makes me better able to help people who need to understand the environment. If you don’t take time to study it, you might not see it.”

Sowing the Seed

Urban high school students break ground for a gardenIn addition to appreciating the beauty of plants and trees, Central High students gained a new awareness of the role plants play in removing harmful greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from the air. Students studied which of three indoor plant species—golden pothos, fittonia, or dieffenbachia—was most efficient in removing CO2 from the air. They then lobbied administrators to place plants in classrooms and on hallway window ledges, convincing them that less CO2 would mean students would be less tired and more alert. The school’s two indoor greenhouses are used to raise the plants that help improve indoor air quality.

Environmental Studies Academy students have also planted a sensory garden, a butterfly garden, and an urban vegetable garden on the school’s grounds, where student gardeners raise tomatoes, carrots, peppers, eggplant, and other vegetables for themselves and their families. To fertilize their indoor and outdoor gardens, Central High students placed a compost bin in the cafeteria. Now, instead of sending uneaten food to the landfill, waste is turned into nutrients that help the school’s urban vegetable garden thrive.

Promoting Student Leadership

urban gardening students preparing for presentation of their farm model projectStudent leadership is central to the Environmental Studies Academy, which serves students in grades 10-12. “We’re involved in everything the administrators are involved with,” sais Kristina Porter, who served as the Academy’s president. “When they receive information, they pass it along to us in weekly meetings, and we share it with our peers. As student leaders, it’s also our responsibility to listen to our fellow students and get their opinions.”

Porter and fellow sophomore Michael Faseun joined Vice Principal Eason and chemistry teacher Dr. Brian Kuzma in presenting a webinar about the GreenWorks grant program as part of a national “Climate Change LIVE” webinar series sponsored by the U. S. Forest Service and 26 federal and nonprofit partners, including Project Learning Tree. They explained how GreenWorks grants might support other schools that want to investigate and address climate change issues.

“The experience of presenting a webinar to a large national audience was kind of nerve wracking at first,” confessed Porter. “I didn’t know what to expect. But I actually knew things I didn’t think I knew, and it didn’t bother me that I was talking to probably a thousand people. It was wonderful experience for me.”

Fellow presenter Faseun concurred: “At first it was kind of hard, because I didn’t know what to expect. But after the first five minutes I really knew what I was doing and I was able to adapt to a new experience.”

Vice Principal Eason summed up the event this way: “The students did a fantastic job. They were so excited. They felt like rock stars—and so did I!”

Student Service-Learning Projects, Year-End Roundup

Throughout the 2013 school year, students, teachers, and community members worked tirelessly to implement service-learning projects across the country. PLT supported 29 inspiring projects in 17 states and the District of Columbia through our GreenWorks! grant-giving program. Here are just a few highlights from the many impressive environmental improvement projects.

Exploring Mars and Recycling on Earth

Recycling with Evergreen Middle School7th grade students at Evergreen Middle School in Cottonwood, California, reached for the stars with two service-learning projects. Their student-led NASA Research Team members and teachers are passionate about studying Mars. In 2010, the school received national attention for discovering a new cave by closely examining images of the planet’s surface. 

To support their work on the Mars Student Imaging Project and their yearly trip to the NASA AMES Facility in Mountain View, California, the team came up with a plan to raise funding. They initiated a school-wide recycling program for which they received a PLT GreenWorks! grant to help them get started. Students distributed recycling bins and collected paper, cardboard, plastic bottles, and aluminum cans in their classrooms, the district offices, and at school-community events. Each week they took all of the materials to local recycling facilities and the money earned from recycling efforts supported the Research Team’s expenses.

“The most rewarding (and most successful) part of the project has been the buy-in of the students on the team. The students [were] relentless in their pursuit to collect the materials. They often came in on their own time before school and at lunch to collect the materials,” said Dennis Mitchell, 7th grade Math, Science, Technology, and Service Learning Coordinator at Evergreen Middle School, and a 1999 National PLT Outstanding Educator.

Composting in the Classroom

CompostingYMCA Camp Minikani in Hubertus, Wisconsin, started an in-school environmental education outreach program to teach students at numerous Wisconsin schools about decomposing materials and composting.

During weekly visits for six weeks, 4th through 8th grade students learned how items are disposed, where their garbage goes, and what happens to the trash. To demonstrate concepts like decomposition, Camp Minikani staff led hands-on lessons and group activities including Activity 23, The Fallen Log from PLT’s PreK-8 Environmental Education Activity Guide.

As students learned more about decomposition, they were asked to consider objects like leather boots, banana peels, plastic jugs, and newspapers, then estimate how long they think it takes each item to decompose. Students were surprised to find that some items take hundreds of years to decompose while other items never do.

In a later lesson, Camp Minikani staff introduced the concept of composting and shared examples of materials that can and cannot be used. Using plastic jugs, they helped the students set up an experiment designed to illustrate factors that affect composting. Holes were poked into one bottle to mimic windy conditions, another bottle had no water to represent composting in a dry environment, the next bottle had too much water to simulate a wet environment, and the last bottle was the control. Over the following weeks, groups of students added compostable wastes to their bottles, observed any changes, and identified the differences between composting in various conditions.

After discovering that bottles with water led to faster decomposition rates, while drier conditions led to minimal change, the students were ready to initiate a composting program at their schools. Students educated others on composting and came up with the method and schedule for collecting food wastes at lunch. Camp Minikani staff set up large composters outside that the students are continuing to use regularly, and many students are making plans to expand the program to compost school-wide.

Creating a Wildlife Garden

Catawba Trail Elementary GreenWorks projectCatawba Trail Elementary in Elgin, South Carolina, expanded their existing butterfly and bird garden to make a new home for fish, amphibians, and other aquatic life.  

To begin the project, students proposed and then selected a design that included a pond, waterfall, river rocks, native plants, and clay pots perfect for attracting toads.

Students framed the area with rope and dug until the hole was big and deep enough for the pond. Next, students laid out the liner for the bottom of the pond and edged the border with rocks. A waterfall was installed, the pond was cleaned and filled with water, after which fish and pollinator attracting plants were added to complete the new aquatic habitat.

Having transformed their outdoor space into a wildlife garden rich with diverse plant and animal life, Catawba Trail Elementary now fully utilizes the area as an outdoor science lab for all classes.

Overseeing the garden expansion was Science Lab Teacher, Victoria Pasco, who was named South Carolina Association of Conservation Districts Teacher Of The Year in 2012 for her outstanding commitment to conservation education. She believes “environmental education is critical to creating good stewards of our natural resources and the best way to develop good stewardship is by creating a connection between children and our natural world.” To help make those connections, Pasco uses both Project Learning Tree and Project WILD’s environmental education activities in her instruction.

“The most important aspect of this project is the pride and ownership the children have in the garden in which they did all the work,” said Pasco.

Have an Idea for a Service-Learning Project?

Consider applying for a GreenWorks! grant from PLT.  Schools and other educational institutions are welcome to apply. The annual deadline is September 30th.

Triple Green Status and Still Going Forward

Gwin Elementary Teachers

In 2013, Harriette Gwin Elementary achieved an Environmental Education (EE) “trifecta.” The school in Hoover, AL, near Birmingham, became one of the first in the country to earn recognition as a certified PLT GreenSchool, a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School, and a National Wildlife Federation Green Flag Eco-School.

“Gwin Elementary School is a school that focuses on the present and future lives of our students,” said Principal Dr. Kimberly White in explaining why the school pursues EE. “We strive for excellence and to broaden the scope of influence our students will have on their communities and environment. Our students strive to make Hoover and our world ‘greener’ places to live.”

A school often needs an EE champion, and Gwin is no exception. For many years, enrichment teacher Traci Knight Ingleright has helped channel the interest of other teachers, staff, students, and families at all grade levels by integrating PLT and other activities into Gwin’s curriculum.

“Reconnecting with nature in a suburban landscape can be a challenge, but is a priority to our staff and administration,” noted Ingleright when she submitted the school’s application to become a Certified PLT Greenschool. “We have many different gardens that students created and use as places to explore natural habitats, such as the native bird sanctuary. This is just one example of an outdoor project, but many others have been utilized.”

The daughter and sister of foresters, Ingleright first became PLT-trained in 1994. She introduces PLT to pre-service teachers at Auburn and the University of Alabama. In return, the new and future teachers help her put on a two-day science camp or commit to working with other schools in the state.

Student Interests

Gwin Elementary Eco BrainsIngleright teaches grades 3 through 5 in pull-out classes, but she stresses that PLT meets the needs of “all learning styles and students of all ages.”
“My favorite part of the PLT investigations is that they allow students to take an active leadership role in their future while reinforcing the importance of their ‘voice,’” she said. “It’s a beautiful process to watch.”

A group of students who named themselves “Eco-Brains” took the lead in carrying out the Energy, Waste and Recycling, Water, School Site, and Environmental Quality investigations to become a Certified PLT GreenSchool. They also have mentored younger students. Several other grades are also active users of PLT.

“Any kid can do it, as long as you’re ready to get outdoors,” said Blaine Cook, a student transitioning from Gwin to middle school. Looking back, he said the experiences that stuck with him most were assisting the Wehle Nature Conservation Center with a bird-tagging project by creating safe bags for the birds, and investigating the air-quality impacts of car and bus idling and suggesting solutions.

Gwin Elementary RecyclesBut perhaps the main lesson it taught him: “Kids can always make a difference in society.”

He is far from the only Gwin student who gains that insight. Ingleright administers a short questionnaire to students in third grade and again in fifth grade, asking them if they feel they can make a difference in the world. Typically, the positive response is about 30% in the beginning and 100% by fifth grade.

Blaine’s mother Lyric Crook also pointed to the role that EE has played in her son’s and other children’s development. “It teaches kids about working together, research, problem solving, and asking questions,” she said, adding that Blaine has spurred interest among the rest of his family.

When students realized that the school’s watering hoses could not reach a garden they planted, they problem-solved a solution by constructing 15 rain barrels. The barrels eliminated the need for irrigation systems for that garden plot and other native species gardens on the school grounds.

How Gwin Became a PLT Certified GreenSchool

Energy Investigation

Ingleright says outside experts are often thrilled to work with students—they just need to be asked. Case in point: Liz Cochran, an Energy Star Portfolio specialist, has helped students research and find ways to reduce energy usage. Cochran had offered to provide assistance to Alabama schools, but had not yet been contacted before working with Gwin. Through turning off unnecessary lights and other measures, the school reduced non-transportation energy use by 8.4% over the period of a year.

Waste & Recycling Investigation

Gwin partnered with Recycling Across America to launch a new and improved student-led recycling initiative. Students help in classroom recycling and sorting of materials, and the school actively promotes and practices reducing the overall amount of paper and other materials used.

Water Investigation

Students identified a problem to solve: the steps leading into the school remained wet and muddy after a rain. They realized that run-off was creating the problem and proposed rain barrels to catch the water. Fifteen rain barrels now eliminate the need for irrigation systems for the school’s native species gardens. Other water-reduction techniques include low-flow faucets, which, along with other measures, reduced domestic water use by 2%. And the mud on the stairs problem? Gone!

Gwin Elementary Tree BandingSchool Site Investigation

Ingleright recommends starting with this investigation because “students love it.” Her students conducted a biodiversity audit of the school grounds, and the investigations dovetailed easily with language arts, PE, math, and other subjects. Many teachers now go outdoors with their classes regularly for science, math, and other lessons.

Environmental Quality Investigation

After a team of students researched air quality issues, Gwin became the first school in the district to implement EPA’s Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools program and the first in the state to fly an Air Quality flag. Each day, students raise the appropriate flag, alerting the community about the status of the air that day. In addition, their investigation focused on parents’ cars idling during afternoon pick-up, which resulted in a change in policy to reduce exhaust.

Tapping Into Community Resources

Ingleright already realized that resource managers, planners, and others in the community want to work with schools and are looking for how to do that. The level of community interest, however, was even higher than she expected.

Outside experts are often thrilled to work with students—they just need to be asked, she noted. Case in point: An Energy Star Portfolio specialist has helped students research and find ways to reduce energy usage. She had offered to provide assistance to Alabama schools, but had not yet been contacted before working with Gwin. Through turning off unnecessary lights and other measures, the school reduced non-transportation energy use by 8.4% over the period of a year—and students gained valuable skills in data collection and analysis, as well as how to learn from and collaborate with a technical expert.

Tips From Gwin Elementary

  • Questions, not answers

Ingleright does not give her students the answers—instead, she encourages them to find the answers on their own. It can lead to surprising opportunities. For example, they learned that Alabama does not have an Environmental Literacy Plan and Ingleright, who sits on the Governor’s Task Force to develop one, passed on their concerns. Several Gwin students are now involved in this effort.

  • Start with the School Site investigation

If your school is trying to figure out its “entry point” into PLT GreenSchools certification, Ingleright recommends looking at the School Site investigation first. “Students love it,” she says, “and you’ll find many teachers start to utilize the outdoors more for their science, math, and other lessons.”

  • Look at what you are already doing

Ingleright acknowledged that she initially found the applications for the various national programs daunting. But then she realized that Gwin was already doing a lot that met the criteria. Her suggestion: Look around and inventory what your school is already doing.

  • Involve everyone

In addition to teachers, administration, students, and parents, Ingleright said the custodians, lunchroom staff, maintenance personnel, and school police are enthusiastic supporters of PLT GreenSchools and other EE activities.

Middle School Students Honored as “Heroes” for Making a Difference

ABC Channel 7 film crew interview a student in front of school mural in Washington, DC.
ABC Channel 7 film crew interview student in front of school mural

As the school year drew to a close in June 2013, Paul Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., was selected by ABC Channel 7 television personality Leon Harris as one of “Harris’ Heroes” for the difference they are making in their community. Harris recognized the students as heroes and honored Project Learning Tree “for its work in giving youth an active voice” and for getting students outdoors and connecting them with their environment.

Watch this two-minute video on WJLA’s website.

The honor was the latest in a long list of accomplishments by Paul’s Green Team, which has devoted countless hours, in the words of eighth-grader Eleni Hailu, to “changing something that is nothing, into something really beautiful.”

These urban middle-school students have transformed their asphalt schoolyard into a thriving urban garden. They have turned an eyesore of a bare, street-facing wall into a huge, brightly colored environmental mural that has helped bring the school and the neighborhood together. And they have worked to implement energy- and water-conservation and recycling programs to reduce their school’s carbon footprint.

Eco-Themed Mural Brings Pride, Raises Awareness

paul-public-charter-school_washington-dc_muralAn immense wall used to be a huge, rusty cement eye sore, but there was no shortage of ideas from the kids about how to transform this corner of their school. They researched murals in D.C. and their impact on neighborhoods. They combined photos taken around the city with interviews of students and community members to develop a proposal for a mural with an eco-theme “D.C. is Going Green” that won the approval of school administration, community board members, and funders.

Inspired by muralists Hector Durate and Ellen Griesedieck, students created the design—an “eco-wave” washing over the school and Washington skyline. The mural depicts flowers, leaves, and butterflies, an environmentally friendly school bus, silhouettes of the kids doing a cartwheel, and outlines of their handprints. Students concluded that if the mural had a positive message about the environment, people would be more likely to clean up after themselves and not throw trash on the ground.

Howard University student and artist Michele Goosby worked with the students to bring the wall to life. She enhanced the design by making a tree with the recycling sign for its foliage as its central point and added more fruits and vegetables to represent the school yard garden students had also worked hard to create.

More than 20 student volunteers regularly continued to come even two weeks into summer vacation to finish the mural. After three weeks, dozens of gallons of paint, oodles of paint brushes, and several trips to ACE Hardware, it was completed. The mural was truly a collaborative process that involved teachers, students, and community members. Despite the heat, the gnats, and the labor, the passersby who honked their horns and yelled out good wishes of “looking good!” and “way to go!” made it all worth it.

See more photos of the mural on PLT’s Facebook page.

Nutritious Results from Digging in the Dirt

paul school raised bed gardenMost of the school’s Green Team projects have focused on getting students outdoors, working on the gardens they have created. The garden project started when I returned from an environmental education Peace Corps experience in Nicaragua and realized that my students in the U.S., all English Language Learners, could benefit from hands-on work with the environment.

A Project Learning Tree GreenWorks! grant provided the materials I needed to create several raised beds where the students now grow food that includes tomatoes, jalapenos, lettuce, corn, basil, and cilantro. Master gardener and chef, Mark Haskell, has helped the students realize the nutritious—and delicious—results of the time they spend digging in the dirt.  We use the bounty for special occasions to make salads for our visitors. These have included officials from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Forest Service.

garden with stone walkwayFor Earth Day 2013, students created a new pollinator garden, bordered by an intricate stone walkway designed by a student. They worked for eight hours on the day before Earth Day to lay 4,000 pounds of stone; plant coneflowers, goldenrod, sunflowers, geraniums, and pepper bushes; and put up brightly-painted nest boxes for non-stinging bees to pollinate the flowers. We had been studying pollination in class since January, so this was a perfect project. It also taught teamwork and cooperation. The student who had the idea for the walkway had the design in her head. She trained other kids to lay the path because she couldn’t do it all herself. She also trained volunteers to help get it done.

Energy, Water and Recycling 

In addition, to help reduce their school’s carbon footprint and save water, students installed motion detectors for the lights in the school’s hallways and bathrooms, and encouraged school administrators to install automatic flushing mechanisms on toilets and motion sensors on bathroom faucets. They plan to look for even more ways to save energy and water when the school is remodeled.

Paul’s Green Team uses three composters purchased with help from a GreenWorks! grant to compost leaves and other vegetable waste from the raised-bed gardens into soil for the new pollinator garden. They compost waste from the school’s cafeteria to create even more of the rich gardening soil for their outdoor projects. They have also purchased recycling bins for the school to keep cans and bottles out of the stream of trash the school sends to the landfill.

Paul School MuralTips for Teachers

  • Believe in your students’ problem-solving abilities. The most important thing is to make sure your students are invested in every project. They’ll be invested if they see a project as their idea, not their teacher’s.
  • If your students are having trouble thinking of project ideas, try brainstorming, or suggest they interview people in the community to see what they can do to improve their neighborhood.
  • Never say no. No matter how big the students’ dreams are, they can be realized. Our mural is a good example. My students put together a presentation of murals in different places in D.C. and interviewed people about how those other murals had made a difference in their community. Those interviews, and writing letters and proposals for our own mural helped my students develop language and social studies skills. When they see that what they’re doing is making a difference in their community, they’re motivated.
  • Trust your students to make decisions that are going to benefit the community.
  • Encourage students who are not natural leaders into other leadership roles. Sometimes you need to be a little crafty to encourage students who may not shine in other areas to do something different that will give them the confidence they need.

I am  confident that my students will continue to accomplish great things. 

Paul school green team“We really care about each other and the environment, we’re like family trying to change everything,” 13-year-old Eleni Hailu told the Channel 7 news crew.   “I’m so proud of us, I can’t wait to see what we do in the future,” added eighth-grader Nanci Reyes.

Learn More

Feeling Inspired?

Apply for a PLT GreenWorks! grant and help students improve the environment at their school and in their neighborhood.

GreenSchools as an Extracurricular Activity

Owasso Green TeamWe’re proud to work for a school district in suburban Owasso, Oklahoma, that places a high value on environmental education. Even so, the PLT GreenSchools program at the Owasso 7th Grade Center is considered an extracurricular activity, rather than part of our school’s curriculum. Therefore, we have to tailor our GreenSchools Investigations so that they fit into occasional 30-minute Green Team meetings held before and after the regular school day. Keeping our work focused is extra challenging because the Green Team includes anywhere from 60 to 120 students at any given time, and different students participate in the morning and afterschool sessions.

However, we haven’t let those challenges stop us! Our seventh-graders have accomplished great things since we started with the PLT GreenSchools program. While we haven’t been able to complete entire Investigations like other schools where Green Team activities are part of the regular school day, we’ve made major strides in making our school greener using activities from the School Site, Energy, and Waste and Recycling Investigations.

If you face similar challenges in your school, we hope you’ll be inspired by what can be accomplished with PLT GreenSchools in just a small amount of time.

Action and Results

School Site Investigation

We have a large school campus that everyone uses, so the School Site Investigation was a logical place to start our first Green Team effort. Once our students completed the investigation and made their recommendations, we applied for a grant from Project Learning Tree to fund the Green Team’s action projects. Money from the grant helped us develop several outdoor classroom areas and purchase 18 concrete benches, a table, and two rain barrels.

While the school campus has many trees, we wanted to plant more. The Green Team worked with the school’s custodian, Brenda Reed, who helped connect us with Up With Trees, a Tulsa area nonprofit dedicated to protecting the region’s urban forest. They helped us obtain and plant 60 new trees on the campus. Lowe’s and Home Depot also helped with various projects, providing bird feeders, mulch, and a large auger to dig holes for planting the new trees. Our Green Team is now working with teachers to encourage each classroom to adopt and care for one of the newly planted trees.

Owasso Classroom LightingEnergy Investigation

Some of the money from our grant went to purchase 16 kilowatt meters and light meters so the Green Team could investigate our school’s energy use. They looked at everything: the energy being used to run computers, the library’s laminator, which turned out to be a real energy hog, and the electricity we were using to light our classrooms and cafeteria.

The students discovered that by using natural light, our classroom energy use could be halved. They recommended leaving one of the two light switches in each classroom turned off. They also instituted “moonlight lunches” in the cafeteria, when students eat by natural light, installed timers on all the school’s copiers to automatically turn them off when not in use, and recommended keeping the laminator turned off except when it was needed. Thanks to their efforts, we are now the number one school in our district for energy conservation.

Waste and Recycling Investigation

Owasso RecyclingWhen new telephone directories started arriving on doorsteps in our community, it got our students thinking that almost no one uses phone books to look up numbers any more. They held a contest, with assistance from several local businesses, to see which classroom could collect the most phone books for recycling. Thanks to their efforts, we have been able to recycle 1,800 unwanted books—books that otherwise might have ended up in the landfill.

The Green Team also initiated a partnership with the Metropolitan Environmental Trust (“The MET”), a local nonprofit that supports community recycling projects. Our students saw a big problem with trash, particularly water bottles, on our community’s sports fields. Now these and other non-glass recyclables are collected in two “Mr. Murph” bins provided by The MET and installed on campus. One of these bins is available for community members to deposit household recyclables, and has become so popular that it needs to be emptied nearly every day.

Every time a bin is emptied, it earns the Green Team $5 to support their activities; in 2012, the team earned $300. Instead of paying to have our trash taken away, we’re now getting paid for it. Our students’ efforts to dramatically reduce the amount of waste our school sends to the dump earned them The MET’s 2012 Oklahoma Recycling School Award.

In the cafeteria, the GreenTeam requested that their meals be served on recyclable dinnerware. Everything except the food is now recycled, and even some of the food is not wasted. Leftover fruits and vegetables are often used to feed classroom pets, and other food waste is composted for the school gardens.

Tips for Teachers

  • Use your limited meeting time as an opportunity for Green Team members to check in, plan, organize, and agree on next steps.

That way, students can take the lead in implementing projects on their own schedule, whenever they have the time.

  • Set achievable goals.

Rather than taking on an entire Investigation, which may be difficult to complete in limited time, tackle one piece at a time. Celebrate each milestone for the progress it represents.

  • Look for resources beyond your school’s teaching staff.

Our school custodian turned out to be a terrific gardener who was able to connect us to a community organization that helped us acquire 60 new trees for our campus. She came in to water the newly planted trees during her summer vacation. Your school’s staff probably has similar people who can pitch in.

  • Use local businesses and community organizations to supplement limited staff resources.

We would never have been able to accomplish so much without the involvement of partners like Lowe’s, Home Depot, and the Metropolitan Environmental Trust. Get students engaged in brainstorming potential partners—and then let them take the lead in asking for their help.

  • Remember the old saying that “many hands make light work”?

Get the whole school involved in generating buzz about—and implementing—your projects. We’ve made our Green Team activities a regular part of our school’s daily announcements over the intercom. We’ve also been able to recruit new Green Team members using a five-minute video produced by our school’s Drama Club.

  • Recognize staff and student efforts with simple “Green Awards”.

We rewarded one of our administrative assistants for her recycling efforts in the office, and our Spanish teacher for encouraging students in the cafeteria. Students who faithfully help carry out the recycling bags have received “Green Awards,” as well.

  • Create a demand for recycled items.

Our students ordered Green Team shirts and sought out a vendor that would print their logo on “eco-shirts” that are made partially from recycled bottles. The shirts look great and students are proud to make an environmental statement each time they wear them. The shirts cost a little more, but our recycling profits offset the cost. The more demand we create for recycled products, the stronger the recycling business will become!

Students Proliferate Native Plants in a New Greenhouse

Invasive species are degrading natural ecosystems across the country.  As a science teacher at Carmichaels High School in Pennsylvania, I wanted to design a service-learning project for students to combat the threat of invasive species in our community through awareness, education, advocacy, and action. The primary goal for this project is to propagate native plant species in a greenhouse and restore a local ecosystem with native vegetation.  Along with this objective comes educating both students and community members about the importance of planting natives. 

Our Plan of Action
We started our native plant restoration project last year when 40 environmental science high school students researched invasive species in our local area.  They collaborated with university professors, state environmental agencies, foresters and other natural resources professionals to design a habitat restoration plan and raise native plants.

Carmichaels High School environmental science students Michael Donaldson and Floretta Chambers with an oak seedlingIn the coming months, students will survey and remove invasive species surrounding a community nature trail, and re-vegetate the area with native plant species.  They will design and create a trail guide to educate the public about the aesthetic value, rich diversity, and environmental importance of these native plants, and they’ll help their community understand the threats of invasive plants, and the importance of using native species in landscaping.

As a key component to this project, we recently completed construction of a 24×48 greenhouse for students to raise native plant species from seeds and cuttings. Members of the Carmichaels Area School Board, administration and staff, community partners, and financial contributors were invited to an “Open House for the Greenhouse” on March 21.

Exceeding Expectations
Carmichaels High School environmental science student Doug Kowalewski waters oak seedlings in the school's new greenhouseOur project is exceeding our expectations! We have had various experts in the field come to the greenhouse and share their expertise in raising native plant species. These experts have been impressed not only with our current projects, but also with our students’ involvement and eagerness to participate. Students are currently monitoring over 700 oak seedlings and 250 perennials.

Other teachers are coming on board to utilize the greenhouse facility.  Fred Morecraft and Zoe Chambers were on hand at the open house to share the involvement of their 6th grade and Life Skills students, respectively.Carmichaels High School environmental science student Garrett Elek with a perennial

During the open house we revealed plans to provide an automatic watering system for times when school is not in session, benches for additional growing space, heating tubes for increased germination, and tree tubes to protect the seedlings along with other equipment and supplies to keep the greenhouse project sustainable in the future.

Committed Partners
School decision-makers, local businesses, and community organizations are key to helping make a project like this a success.  My students are at the center of our native plant restoration project, but we couldn’t do it without the unwavering support of our School Board and administration, the hard work of our maintenance staff who constructed the greenhouse, and a host of community partners who are providing their own expertise.  We are most grateful to all our partners who are supporting students in making a difference!

Kevin Willis is science teacher at Carmichaels High School in Greene County, Pennsylvania.  Funding for the greenhouse construction came from the Community Foundation of Greene County and a Toyota Tapestry grant.  A Project Learning Tree GreenWorks! grant is helping to provide the funding for equipment and supplies for high school students to raise native plant species in the greenhouse and use them to restore the natural ecosystem along a section of the Carmichaels Nature Trail. For more information and to apply for a PLT GreenWorks! grant, visit

PHOTO 1: Environmental Science students with oak seedlings they are growing in their new greenhouse under the leadership of Kevin Willis (right), Carmichaels Area High School teacher in Greene County, Pennsylvania
PHOTO 2: Michael Donaldson and Floretta Chambers with an oak seedling
PHOTO 3:  Doug Kowalewski waters oak seedlings in the school’s new greenhouse
PHOTO 4:  Garrett Elek with a perennial


ELM: Environmental Learning Multiplied, in Denver

A science methods student from the education department at Metropolitan State University in Denver practices his teaching with Colfax Elementary School students, many of whom are English Language Learners, using a Project Learning Tree activity Signs of Fall in Sloan's Lake ParkMultiplication usually results in ending up with more than you had at the start. That’s what happened with Environmental Learning Multiplied, or ELM, a program tat Sloan’s Lake Park in Denver.

ELM is a collaboration of Colfax Elementary School, Denver Parks and Recreation, Colorado PLT, the Colorado State Forest Service, and the Education Department at Metropolitan State University (MSU) of Denver, where I am an education professor. About 20 preservice teachers in MSU Denver science methods classes who attended a PLT workshop had the opportunity to plan and deliver PLT activities at Sloan’s Lake Park a month later. Students in grades 4 and 5 from Colfax Elementary walked to the park, only two blocks from their school, on a Friday afternoon; 2nd and 3rd graders participated the following Monday.

Multiplied Benefits
A preservice teacher from the education department at Metropolitan State University in Denver shows Colfax Elementary School students how to do a bark rubbing as part of a Project Learning Tree activity, The Closer You Look, in Sloan's Lake Park

  • MSU Denver preservice teachers planned and delivered hands-on science lessons to children;
  • Colfax Elementary students, many of whom are English language learners (ELL), learned about ecosystems and became more familiar with a neighborhood green space;
  • Colfax Elementary teachers observed how their students behaved and learned in an outdoor environment, and saw how PLT activities engaged the students with hands-on science activities involving collaboration, critical thinking, observing, and investigating.
  • Denver Parks and Recreation fulfilled their objective to promote local parks to the community for recreation and education;
  • Colorado PLT discovered how well the program worked and plans to repeat and possibly expand it in the future.

Adapting a Good Idea from Texas

Colorado PLT Coordinator Shawna Crocker brought back the idea for “multiplying” the learning from a PLT International Coordinators’ Conference.  She attended a presentation by Cheryl Boyette, Texas PLT Steering Committee, John Boyette, Texas Forest Service and PLT Co-Coordinator, and Alan Sowards, Stephen F. Austin State University, about a program in which preservice students plan and conduct PLT lessons at the university arboretum during an annual Bugs, Bees, Butterflies and Blossoms festival.

In our case, we took advantage of MSU Denver’s existing relationship with Colfax Elementary through our Center for Urban Education, as well as the close proximity of Sloane’s Lake Park to the school.

MSU Denver offers five sections of methods classes—three undergraduate, one master’s, and one in early childhood—as one of the last courses taken before student teaching begins. One of the course requirements is to teach a science and a math lesson in the field, observed by a methods professor.

A preservice teacher from the education department at Metropolitan State University in Denver shows Colfax Elementary School students a pine cone as part of a Project Learning Tree activity, Name That Tree, in Sloan's Lake ParkFinding time to teach a science lesson in a field experience can be challenging, given the amount of time devoted to literacy and math in the elementary curriculum.  But PLT activities are a great way to incorporate teaching science with math and language arts. Thus, ELM provided a way for MSU students to fulfill a class assignment, and the opportunity to partner with a local elementary school and engage students in learning outside.

I contacted Joanna Martinez, Colfax Elementary principal, about the possibility. Always interested in finding new experiences for her students, she jumped at the idea. She asked us to involve 2nd through 5th graders. I set up a general agenda for two field days for two hours each day, from 12:30 to 2:30 pm.

The Role for Preservice Teachers

Preservice teachers attended a PLT workshop and signed on for ELM. Their assignment: work in pairs to plan and deliver a PLT lesson to students in a given grade level.

The MSU Denver students had three weeks to plan their lessons. They visited the site beforehand to become familiar with its location, layout, and resources. They were given the following broad guidelines, after which they told me which PLT activities they planned to teach (see ELM Choices below):

  • Each lesson would last about 50 minutes, and they would teach the lesson twice in the two hours;
  • Both of their classes would be the same grade;
  • They would need to supply their own materials;
  • Colfax Elementary students would have clipboards, but there would be no tables or seating available.

ELM Days

In addition to MSU faculty and Parks and Recreation employees, Colorado PLT staff were on hand to assist with both field days. The preservice teachers attended only for the day they were assigned to teach. On Friday, the preservice teachers met the 4th and 5th grade classes at the edge of the park, but the Colfax principal asked the preservice teachers to meet the younger children at the school on Monday and escort them to the field site. This allowed for a small orientation beforehand, and the children settled in more quickly once they got to the site.

Golden leaves were still on the trees in Sloan's Lake Park in Denver at the end of October 2012 when preservice teachers from the education department at Metropolitan State University in Denver practiced their teaching in the outdoors with Colfax Elementary School students.We were fortunate that the autumn weather was warm and the golden leaves remained on the trees. Students rotated from station to station with excitement and purpose.

The preservice teachers found the experience positive but also challenging, mainly because they received little background information about the students or content connections to what they were learning in the classroom. Several of my fellow methods professors came to observe their students, but concluded that the experience did not necessarily reflect their students’ teaching abilities. In this scenario, the preservice teachers’ role was more of a guest speaker than of a familiar teacher. This is a limitation of the program design, and we relied on the Colfax teachers to help tie the experience to prior knowledge learned in the classroom.

Some of the Colfax teachers, especially the ELL teachers, became quite involved in the lessons. We are hoping that they will all become more comfortable with PLT and outdoor learning as we repeat the program in the future. Similarly, if we continue to offer a multi-grade program, students will have multiple exposures from year to year.

All of our experience feeds into our Lessons Learned to keep in mind for our next ELM.

Lessons Learned

While all partners were pleased with ELM, I have thought about ways to improve it:

  • Set up the assignment sooner.  I would talk to the other professors who teach methods courses so they can include the assignment in their syllabi.
  • Work more closely with Colfax Elementary teachers. Ideally, the preservice teachers would correlate the PLT lessons more closely with what the elementary students are learning at that time. It would be great if the teachers could provide some information beforehand, as well as extend the PLT learning afterwards.
  • Understand the limitations of the assignment. Some professors came to observe their students at the park. While this is a great experience for the preservice teachers, it is not necessarily an accurate reflection of their teaching ability.

If you are looking for ways to engage preservice teachers, consider a version of ELM that works for you. You will multiply the benefits to your students and the community.

ELM Choices

During ELM, MSU preservice teachers selected these activities to use with Colfax Elementary students:

Second grade
#78, Signs of Fall
#22, Trees as Habitats
#47, Are Vacant Lots Vacant

Third grade
#61, The Closer You Look
#64, Looking at Leaves

Fourth grade
#22, Trees as Habitats
#68 and #78, Name that Tree; Signs of Fall

Fifth grade
#36, Pollution Search
#63, Tree Factory