Student Sustainability Group Leads Reforestation Effort

“Students for Sustainability” (SFS) are working to reduce the carbon footprint of their school and community at Port Townsend High School (PTHS) in Washington State. In a relatively short amount of time, they’ve already taken many important steps toward sustainability, including:

  • Reducing cafeteria waste by switching to reusable dishes and utensils, saving an estimated $10,000 per year,
  • Improving community and school recycling programs by raising funding for new bins,
  • Instituting a ride-sharing program to get more students to carpool, and
  • Leading a massive reforestation effort to improve local habitat.


Meet the Students for Sustainability

Since June 2012, SFS has operated as a student-led club. Two PTHS science educators serve as mentors for the group, letting the students decide on and direct projects. What brings them all together is their collective passion for reducing the effects of global climate change and their drive to take positive, strategic action to improve the environment.

Planting an Entire Forest, One Tree at a Time

In 2013, SFS leaders identified carbon sequestration through planting trees as a way to mitigate the effects of climate change. They offered to help reforest two local and critical habitats, the Irondale Springs and Tarboo Creek watersheds. Both sites are within 25 miles of Port Townsend High School. 

After learning about the state of these watersheds, SFS students toured the areas. Their goal was to improve the habitat for wildlife and water quality in the area. By completing this project, they would be able to offset the carbon footprint of each member of the SFS club until they reach age 50.

According to their calculations, if they planted 3,000 trees, the reforested lands would sequester approximately 3 million tons of carbon dioxide over the next 40 years, and 15 million tons over the lifespan of the trees.

As SFS began planning their reforestation efforts, they partnered with the Jefferson Land Trust and the Northwest Watershed Institute. They also applied for and were awarded a PLT GreenWorks! grant to fund part of the project. 

Restoring Irondale Springs:

restoring irondale

Over 100 years ago Irondale Springs was cleared for industrial use due to its proximity to the old Irondale Iron and Steel Plant. After the plant closed for good in 1919, the industry and prosperity of the area declined. Nature slowly began to reclaim Irondale Springs and the surrounding area, but it was predominately blackberry bushes and other invasive plants that took over. 

In 2011, Irondale Springs was donated to the Jefferson Land Trust to permanently preserve the site as a natural area to protect wildlife and water quality. When it was donated, this important conservation easement was in dire need of support and rehabilitation. However, the steep slopes and extremely muddy conditions made it difficult to traverse. Not deterred by the conditions, SFS club members offered to steward the land.

With the funding from PLT, SFS was able to purchase 500 trees for Irondale Springs. After students removed invasive plants and trash, they planted Douglas fir, hemlock, and red cedar.

“The students felt a great sense of accomplishment in reforesting a critical piece of habitat.  They learned how to plant a variety of native trees, being careful not to cause problems to ensure a high survival rate,” said Laura Tucker, advisor to the Students for Sustainability. 

Restoring Tarboo Creek:

Prior to being cleared and drained to create farmland and pasture, Tarboo Creek provided some of the most prolific habitat for salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Beginning in 2007, the Northwest Watershed Institute (NWI), the organization currently managing the property, has been restoring the once meandering creek and tributaries as well as creating new salmon habitat. NWI now holds annual Plant-a-Thons, inviting students from five local schools to plant native trees and shrubs to revitalize the watershed.

In 2014, SFS members served as Crew Leaders for the NWI Plant-a-Thons, helping approximately 125 students from Kindergarten through 8th grade plant 2,500 trees. Club members guided teams of 8 to 10, teaching them how to properly plant the trees and ensure teams had all necessary tools and materials.

Plant-a-thon 2014 Students for Sustainability

In February 2015, SFS joined NWI and other area schools again for this year’s Plant-a-Thon. Together, they planted another 3,500 trees around Tarboo Creek. 

…If you’re keeping score, that’s 6,500 trees and counting!

EPA Certification Students for SustainabilityRecognizing Excellence 

The Jefferson Land Trust was so impressed by the students’ commitment to reforesting the area that they granted perpetual stewardship of Irondale Springs to SFS.

Ewan Shortess, President of SFS, stated, “This chance to make a significant difference in our local community was an incredible opportunity for all of us.  We felt like what we did really mattered.  The Land Trust didn’t have the manpower or the funds to restore the property properly and we came in and transformed the habitat.  No student group had done this before.  

It was a really amazing experience, including working in the difficult terrain and pouring rain, fighting through the overgrowth, and removing trash.  We were thrilled to be the last element in the equation and did something tangible that made a difference.”

The Environmental Protection Agency awarded the Students for Sustainability a Presidents Environmental Youth Award (Region 10) for their work throughout the 2013-14 school year. This award is given to youth groups that promote environmental stewardship, awareness of natural resources, and community involvement. SFS’s award included the students’ tireless efforts to reforest the Irondale Springs and Tarboo Creek watersheds.



Want to form your own student-led green team and take action like “Students for Sustainability”?

Tennessee Elementary School is a Green Powerhouse

students recycling

With just 380 students in grades Pre-K through 4, Lipscomb Academy Elementary School (LAES) in Nashville is small. But when it comes to being green, this PLT GreenSchool and award-winning Department of Education Green Ribbon School (2013) is mighty. 

Together, LAES teachers and students are doing more things to green their school and their community than many other, much larger schools. In the process, this private school has become a “green beacon” in the community, using PLT activities to become a leader in energy conservation, recycling, and hands-on outdoor learning. PLT is a key component of the school’s green curriculum, thanks to four PLT-certified teachers and a program coordinator trained as a PLT workshop facilitator. 

“We use a whole lot of different PLT activities both in our Green Team meetings and in our regular science labs,” says Ginger Reasonover, the school’s science coordinator, who is charged with teaching ‘hands-on’ science to all LAES students. “All the students in the school benefit from PLT-trained teachers like me, because we use those activities all across our program,” she notes. 
“Our school has been recognized at the state and national level for our environmental efforts, presented at several state environmental conferences, and has built such a reputation that we often host other schools who are trying to build a green school program,” Reasonover says. 

Recycling statistics Recycling Champs

Among LAES’ most notable accomplishments is a school- and community-wide recycling program that has kept an eye-popping volume of trash out of Tennessee’s landfills. These very young kids are recycling champs!  In 2014, they collected and recycled more than 44,000 plastic bottles and aluminum cans, 32,500 milk cartons, 7,250 juice pouches, thousands of plastic bags, and several tons of paper and cardboard that would otherwise have ended up in a landfill. 

In addition, Lipscomb Academy students host an annual collection of household hazardous waste in conjunction with America Recycles Day. In 2014, this event yielded more than 700 fluorescent lights and bulbs, 12,500 batteries, 45,000 pounds of e-waste, 200 cell phones, and 250 ink cartridges. Working with the Nashville Metropolitan Police Department, the students also collected more than 144 pounds of prescription medication by encouraging the public to bring unwanted and unused pills to the event for safe disposal. “When you think about the weight of an individual pill, that’s a whole lot of prescription medication that didn’t end up in our drinking water supply,” Reasonover says.

A Stewardship Ethic

Reasonover shares responsibility for the school’s 18-member Green Team with kindergarten teacher Becky Collins, also a PLT-trained teacher. “Both Becky and I have a desire to  help our students develop as good stewards of the Earth, with an appreciation of the outdoors and an understanding that as people we are totally connected to nature, which is a source of our energy and our life,” she explains. “We want them to understand that every decision they make has an impact, positive or negative, on the environment.”

Lipscomb students release tagged monarch butterflyNothing is a better symbol of this interconnectedness than monarch butterflies, which spend time in Tennessee before wintering in high-altitude forests of Mexico. “We’ve developed a school butterfly garden of host plants and nectar plants, planted milkweed—the food plant monarch caterpillars depend on for survival, and shared milkweed seeds with other community members,” says kindergarten teacher and Green Team liaison Becky Collins. “We rear as many caterpillars as we can every year and tag the butterflies that emerge using tags provided by Monarch Watch.”
Collins’ kindergarteners track “their” butterflies’ migration to Mexico and back. “In the last 10 years, we’ve had six of our tagged monarchs show up in the wintering grounds in Mexico,” she reports. “The kids get really excited. Instead of being afraid of bees, butterflies, and ants and other ‘creepy crawlies,’ these little ones have developed a real appreciation that these butterflies are marvelous creatures with an important place in the web of life.”

This year, LAES students used their recycling prowess to help kids in another far corner of the world. They collected enough cans and bottles to raise the $1,500 they needed to purchase a biogas machine for a school in Kenya. The machine uses animal manure heated with sunlight to produce methane for cooking fuel, saving the Kenyan school $100 a month in fuel costs. Now, LAES students are busy collecting aluminum cans so they can buy a milk cow. “With a cow, the kids in Kenya will have milk to drink—AND fuel for the biogas machine. The kids really get the connections and understand what’s sustainable,” says Collins, who supervises the effort.

A GreenWorks! Grant to Restore a Degraded Stream

students checking stream flow

In 2014, LAES applied for and received a $1,000 PLT GreenWorks! grant to help restore a degraded stream that runs through the school property. “This whole project started because our little bitty students came to us and asked why there weren’t any tadpoles or bugs or dragonflies in our stream,” reports Collins. 

After learning of the youngest students’ concerns, the LAES Green Team sampled the stream’s water and measured its temperature, oxygen saturation, salinity, and pH. “Their research told us that the creek was way too warm to sustain life. In addition, the amount of chlorinated water that was coming into the stream was unreal,” Reasonover says. “It took a long time for our local officials to find and fix the leak that was causing the problem.  But now, we’re beginning to see little bubbles coming up out of the streambed to indicate there’s something alive down there, and some plants have been coming back, too.” 

To help restore the environment beside the stream, students and parents are using funds from the PLT GreenWorks! grant to plant native grasses, trees and shrubs to provide a food supply for birds.  “We’ve done a lot of planting already, and when we get through we’ll have between 75 and 100 different native species along our creek,” Reasonover reports.

Starting Young

“At a very early age, our students understand that they have the ability to make a difference in the world around them,” explains Reasonover. “They understand ecological connections between the needs of butterflies, other creatures, and people. In the process, they become better citizens, with appreciation for their responsibility in the natural world.”


*All images are courtesy of Lipscomb Academy*

Image 1: Lipscomb students recycling.

Image 2: Lipscomb Academy’s recyling statistics in 2014. Students diverted thousands of pounds of waste from landfills!

Image 3: Lipscomb students releasing tagged monarch butterfly.

Image 4: Students checking the stream flow with a red boat.

Wetland Warriors: Arming Kids with Knowledge to Help Protect a Disappearing Treasure

Students examining the wetlandsThe dragonflies zipped around us and the indigo buntings sang as we hiked back to the prairie at Estel Wenrick Wetlands Nature Preserve in Springfield, Ohio, to prepare to install the bat houses.

The kids were excited to see their hard work come to fruition. Previously, nine kids had spent two summer mornings building and painting bat houses in the park’s old barn. 

On this July morning, I could not keep up with the kids as they ran to the bat house location, constantly looking at everything along the way. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biologist, Donnie Knight, Jr., and our Operations Manager, Chris Crowley, had each pair of kids help attach the houses to the posts.

When we put up that first post and two houses, the kids couldn’t believe how high it was and that they were the ones that had built those houses. They were ready for the first big brown bat to take up residence. I had to explain to them that it would be a while! Two of the local newspapers were there to cover the story which meant even more to them. 

Grant helps fund youth outdoors education 

A PLT GreenWorks! grant helped launch this after-school outdoors educational program in April in Clark County, Ohio for children 7 to 12 years old. Children are learning about biodiversity and the ecology of their local wetland and prairie, and they installed nesting boxes for bats, kestrels and wood ducks. We use several PLT activities, such as “Planet Diversity”, “Charting Diversity”, “Invasive Species”, “Adopt a Tree”, “Trees as Habitats”, and “Birds and Worms” to teach children about species diversity and adaptations.

“I learned bats like to live in groups,” said Trevor, age nine. “We learned the bat houses needed to be by the water. The bat houses have several layers so they can be together. The bat houses are painted for warmth.”

Once that first post went in, Donnie and I took the kids around the prairie to look at the variety of plants that grew there. We spotted pearl crescent and wood nymph butterflies, and waxwings and barn swallows. One kid in particular hoped to catch a glimpse of the beaver that lives in the creek. And as with each time at the prairie, the red-winged blackbirds were there to “serenade” us. 

More learning opportunities in the wetlands

Students with teacher learning in the wetlandsSince that day, the kids also helped install wood duck boxes at the wetlands and along Spangler Creek at the edge of the preserve, thanks to donations from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. A wood duck even showed up to check out the new habitat. 

The kids have hiked in the wetlands, spotting a Cooper’s hawk and blue-gray gnatcatcher. They’ve walked the prairie and discovered crayfish abodes, a great blue heron rookery and snakes hiding in the grass. They also had the opportunity to explore our deciduous forest and lake where they learned about the Louisiana water thrush and saw a painted turtle getting ready to lay eggs. 

They went on a frog night hike, led by a Wittenberg University professor, and learned all about frog sounds and behavior. They also helped another professor weigh and measure a box turtle for a five-year study being conducted in the park. 

“I really liked Frog Night,” said Sarah. “We played games to learn what different frogs sound like before we hiked. I also liked learning about the different plants like the rattle snake master, Virginia creeper, and all the other kinds. It was also fun to hike in the prairie, see a beaver dam, and also see lots of snakes! The whole experience has been a blast!”


Getting children back into the outdoors

Each time I saw the kids get excited about some new discovery, it confirmed how important it is for kids to get outside; to explore what is in their own “backyards.” The one thing I learned from the kids is that they don’t need to be guided on what to look for. Just stand back and let it happen. When they are outdoors and unplugged they can appreciate all that nature has to offer. Then they will also want to protect it. 

The Wetland Warriors kids have come to mean a lot to us. The Clark County Park District will continue this program into the next year with the hopes of attracting even more kids. We would like to put bluebird boxes up in the park, go for a nature bike ride on one of our trails, and continue to hike and explore our wetlands and prairie.

Want to implement a similar project? Apply for a PLT GreenWorks! grant to fund a service-learning project at your school or in your community.

Technical High School Students Present Business-Savvy Recommendations

Clean Trades Summit First PrizeCreativity, humor, knowledge, and a strong commitment to making their schools greener were all on display when teams of students from five of Connecticut’s technical high schools presented their findings from Project Learning Tree’s  GreenSchools Investigations to hundreds of other students and a panel of school and business officials at a “Clean Trades Summit” at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut, in May 2014.

Who knew that going green could be so much fun?

For its presentation, the Green Team from New Britain’s E. C. Goodwin Tech created the following hilarious video where two students (Vincent DeMatteo & Agustin Cruz) dressed in sunglasses and fedoras stole the show—and took home the Summit’s first prize—as actors playing the roles of misguided crime bosses discussing their extreme measures to force others to recycle and reduce water and energy use. Supporting actors (team members Salem Ahmed, Yahya Kassem, Mike Ortiz, and Khaled Alwisha) added humor to the team’s very serious conservation findings.

With roughly a quarter of a million square feet of shop and classroom space, exterior walls that are largely uninsulated, and an uninsulated 150,000-square-foot roof, current energy costs at Goodwin Tech are extremely high. Electricity alone costs nearly $41,000 a month; it costs $100,800 a month—$139 an hour—to heat the school, and hot water costs more than $7,000 a year.

“I presented this to my class as a learning opportunity. I wanted to make sure that these kids knew about the implications of energy use to the environment and to jobs,” says Stanley Kulak, an instructor in Goodwin Tech’s electrical department. “PLT helped us understand the dollar factor—that wow, we spend half a million dollars on energy! Our goal was to figure out where all that energy was going.”

Humorous Tips with a Serious Message

Goodwin Tech Video

The Goodwin Tech Green Team found that it could save their school some serious money by doing things differently. Among the team’s recommendations (laced with humorous commentary from the two “crime bosses”) were:

  • Collect rainwater for outdoor watering to conserve potable water. (“We could have been mixing our cement shoes with rainwater.”)
  • Change outdoor lighting from metal halide lights with a life expectancy of just two to three years, to energy-efficient LED lights expected to last 22 years.
  • Switch to single-stream recycling. This simple change, with everything collected together in one recycling bin, adds plastic to the materials already recycled at the school, eliminates the need for one trash dumpster, and can be done at no additional cost—but with far less waste.
  • Install timers on Goodwin Tech’s hot water boilers, turn exhaust fans off, lower thermostat settings, maintain equipment, and add insulation to the school’s roof and exterior walls.

Presentations Showcase Student Creativity and Critical Thinking

Students from Abbott Tech in Danbury earned second-place honors at the Summit for their business-savvy recommendations of ways to improve their school’s green footprint. In addition to offering money-saving suggestions for reducing waste and trimming their school’s water and energy consumption, the school’s Green Team mounted a campaign to educate fellow students and their families about conservation. “We took PLT a step further with a lunchtime fair with handouts, posters, and demonstrations about how students and their families could save energy at home by doing simple things and making small changes,” the team told the panel of judges.

The Green Team from Milford’s Platt Tech presented their findings and recommendations in the form of a newscast, with student Michael Gendreau at the “Breaking News” anchor desk, and other members of the team reporting live from the school’s highways on the team’s findings. One student tells his audience that the school’s inefficient light bulbs are “wasting energy like there’s no tomorrow.” Switching to more efficient LED bulbs will save the school $2,640 a month, he reports.

A joint presentation by students from Norwich Tech and Groton’s Ella T. Grasso Tech took the form of a “Jeopardy” game show, with host “Mr. Eco” posing tough questions to a panel of four students showing off their knowledge as “Mr. Air,” “Mr. H2O,” “Mr. Energy,” and “Ms. Waste.” Like real Jeopardy contestants, each student had a signal button connected to a flashing CFL bulb to indicate they knew the answer.

“I’d like to see more kids involved in PLT,” says Abbott Tech’s Eric Sawyer, a science teacher and head of the school’s Related Education Department. “The students that participated had a good time. They weren’t just going through the motions; they were always asking good questions whenever I saw them in the hall or at lunch.”

PLT and Partnerships: A Winning Combination

The summit capped the first year of a two-year Clean Trades pilot program for construction trade students at five technical high schools: E.C. Goodwin (New Britain), Norwich, Ella T. Grasso (Groton), Platt (Milford), and Henry Abbott (Danbury).

The schools that participated in the Clean Trades Summit are part of the 17-school Connecticut Technical High School System (CT Tech). Throughout the school year, students alternate nine-day cycles of academics and work experience, either in school shops or local businesses. Teams of students from each school’s plumbing, electrical, carpentry, and HVAC departments conducted the PLT Investigations—no small feat for students with only half the classroom time of an academic high school.

“We only have 92 days with the students to teach the same curriculum that a teacher at a regular high school has 180 days to teach,” says Eric Sawyer of Abbott Tech. “Adding the PLT curriculum did put some extra stress on the teachers, but they rose to the challenge and pulled together to get it done.”

The Connecticut Forest and Park Association, which administers PLT in Connecticut, provided educator training, workshops, and GreenSchools curriculum materials to the schools. PLT’s business and government partners in the program include Energize Connecticut, which funds the Clean Trades program, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Connecticut Light & Power, United Illuminating, CT Tech, and the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, which organized the Summit.

Lori Paradis Brant, Education Director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association and PLT’s Connecticut state coordinator, notes that the partnership aspect of the Clean Trades program has been especially valuable. “Throughout the school year, employees of Siemans and our other business partners went out to the schools, did facility tours and talked with students about what they do when they do their own energy audits, and helped them grasp ‘real world’ applications of what they were doing. It really helped students make the connection to potential career options,” she says.

A panel of energy experts from Connecticut Light & Power, United Illuminating, Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, Coca-Cola, and the University of New Haven judged each presentation at the Summit and ranked the proposed solutions.


“PLT helped us find a lot of different ways that we could change the global footprint of our school building,” says instructor Brian Charron of Norwich Tech. “When it was all over my students were pleased to see ways that they can make things better, not just in school but in their own homes.”

Watch the Students’ Videos:

Goodwin Tech presentation (First Place)

Abbott Tech presentation

Platt Tech presentation

Joint presentation by Norwich Tech and Grasso Tech

A Very Green(e) School Challenges Students to “Learn Naturally”

Greene School Green TeamThe Greene School has a final “e” in the name because of its location near the village of Greene, Rhode Island (named for colonial leader Nathanial Greene). But the fact is that the independent charter high school is not only Greene, it’s also….green.

A registered PLT GreenSchool, Greene was designated a Green Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. (In 2014 alone, nine schools and one school district registered as PLT GreenSchools were so honored.)

When they visited Washington, DC, to accept the award, five members of the Greene community sat down with PLT to talk about their school and some of its ideas that might apply elsewhere.  They included Amy Pratt, founder and board president; Head of School Deanna Duncan; science teachers Brendan Haggerty and Lara Haggerty; and student Katie Smith.

The 170-student school is affiliated with Expeditionary Learning, which emphasizes active, collaborative education. In keeping with the school’s mission statement to “explore the interdependence of human and natural systems,” Greene students are often outdoors, and an opportunity to share or present what they have learned is an important part of every course.

“I was skeptical at first,” admitted Smith, now in her senior year. “But Greene has put me in a better place with my future, career paths, and understanding my connection to the world.”

A Focus on Sustainability and Community

The Greene School has developed many innovative ways to meet state standards, including the following.

  • Greene School Year End HikeField Work: “We are always looking for ways to tap into local experts and get out into the community,” said Brendan Haggerty. For example, students visited locations related to fishing and other New England industries and created a digital museum based on their research.

    Duncan stressed, “We call it field work, not field trips,” as students are learning in everything they do outside the school building. Even during a subway ride in New York City, she noted, 11th graders recorded observations and collected data.

  • Real-World Issues: Energy, civil rights, and waste are just a few of the issues that students study in science, social studies, literature, and other classes throughout their four years. “In ninth grade, students are doing energy audits of the [school] building to make it more green,” Lara Haggerty cited as an example. She also noted Expeditionary Learning can be multidisciplinary. “We study war and identity in biology,” she said.
  • Crew: Crews of 10 to 15 students participate together in service projects, fitness activities, post-secondary planning, and other activities, based on the concept that they are “crew members” and not just “passengers” at the school.
  • Wilderness and One-Week Intensives: The calendar is set up for several immersion experiences. In the fall, students go on a several-day wilderness trip; in the higher grades, they have increasing responsibility for the trip’s planning and leadership. In addition, two one-week “intensives” are structured in which students delve into a topic or get more concentrated support in academic or personal management skills. 

Going for Green

Last year, the board of directors asked the school staff to apply for Green Ribbon status. “We were in the midst of our charter renewal process, which is pretty extensive, so I was a little reluctant,” admitted Duncan. When she talked with Brendan Haggerty about it, he suggested students draft the application as a one-week intensive.

Students formed teams to compile and draft information that related to Green Ribbon’s three pillars: reduced environmental impact and costs; improved health and wellness; and effective environmental and sustainability education. “It was near the beginning of the school year and we didn’t know each other very well,” said Smith, a member of the group. “But we helped each other a lot. We made phone calls ourselves, like grown-ups. We asked each other when we were stuck before we asked the teacher. 

“The award was great, but we also learned a lot about what we could do for the school,” she added. 

Tips from the Greene Community 

Not every school can have the flexibility that characterizes The Greene School. However, here are a few ideas of how to take some of their ideas to a different school environment:

From teachers Lara Haggerty and Brendan Haggerty:

  • Every community, large or small, has some problem to solve. Start looking local to develop case studies.
  • There’s always the obstacle of not enough time. But the return on investment of spending the time to find local experts is worth it.

From Head of School Deanna Duncan:

  • Make the work relevant to push kids to do high-quality work. They have to learn not just to hand something in, but to re-do and revise if they need to. 

From Board of Directors President Amy Pratt:

  • Students are part of the community. We can help them and they can help us. We have to work with them early, not tuck them away into a school building.

From student Katie Smith:

  • The Greene School is a lot about working together. Students learn we have a strong voice and can make a difference.

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.