Real-World Projects with Real-World Results

“No Excuses, Just Solutions!” is the motto of McKinley Technology High School in Washington, DC, the highly competitive science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) hub school of the D.C. Public School System. 

Student Innovations Address Real-World Environmental Challenges

The solutions-oriented culture of the school provides an ideal setting to address environmental challenges using PLT’s GreenSchools Investigations.  From gardens, to biotechnology, to business development, the school’s Green Team has fostered the seeds of innovation at the school.

The greenhouse at McKinley Tech High School in Washington, DCWhen McKinley Tech, built in 1912, underwent a complete renovation between 2002 and 2004, a large greenhouse was added to the updated school. There was just one problem: the greenhouse was unusable during much of the year because of Washington’s notoriously hot weather, which can begin in late spring and last into early autumn. The hot sun, focused through the greenhouse’s glass, spelled certain death for the plants inside, so the greenhouse remained unused for many years.

Thanks to the vision of former teacher and Green Team leader Dr. Joseph Isaac and creative Green Team members, McKinley Tech applied for and received a $60,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to install a temperature control system in the structure, which is located on one of the school’s upper floors just outside the plant biotechnology classroom.

A PLT GreenSchools service-learning grant provided the funding needed for senior engineering students at McKinley Tech to design a remote watering and misting system for the greenhouse to water plants on weekends and during school vacations. The school’s Information Technology students programmed and connected the system.

Sharing the Fruits of Their Labor

Students use the climate-controlled greenhouse as a laboratory for biotechnology experiments, and as a place to raise seedlings to supply a growing number of PLT GreenSchools gardens sprouting in schoolyards across Washington, D.C. 

From left to right: Dr Joseph Isaac, former teacher and Green Team leader at McKinley Tech High School in Washington, DC and Mark Haskell, chef and master gardenerWith the help of chef and Certified Master Gardener Mark Haskell, McKinley Tech students grew 12,000 vegetable seedlings to supply gardens at three other PLT GreenSchools in Washington. Each school has outdoor gardens that not only supply healthy, pesticide-free produce for students and their families, but also provide abundant learning opportunities.

Students studying the business models used to develop new biotechnology products for the marketplace have used the McKinley Tech greenhouse to grow experimental plants. “They’ve taken lab skills that they have learned, and applied them to real-world projects,” said Dr. Isaac.

Student-Led Initiatives

McKinley Tech students have also used PLT’s GreenSchools program to conduct investigations of their school’s campus, water, and energy use. For example, students used their findings from PLT’s Energy Investigation to devise experiments comparing plant growth using different types and levels of indoor lighting with that of plants grown in natural light, and to compare growth of plants in the school’s indoor and outdoor gardens. PLT’s School Site Investigation led to a student-devised plan to plant trees and other vegetation to make McKinley Tech’s urban campus greener.

In all that they do, the students at McKinley Tech are committed to finding innovative solutions to address real-world challenges—and their skill sets and STEM literacy will pay off in the future for job opportunities and choice of careers.  No wonder this urban public school, a Title 1 Magnet school, continues to be recognized on the national stage for its use of STEM and hands-on, project-based approaches to learning to lower the achievement gap between low-income and high-income students.

Photos courtesy of Kathy Westra.


Finding Ways to Save the Bay

Ben Franklin High Schools students planting Bay GrassesStudents at Baltimore’s Ben Franklin High School are using their involvement with PLT GreenSchools and their proximity to Baltimore Harbor to tackle one environmental challenge after another, determined to make a difference in greening their school and community.

“Our school is located in the most polluted area of Baltimore, and one of the most polluted places in the state of Maryland,” said Albina Joy, the lead teacher in Ben Franklin’s science department. “Thinking about ways to solve our city’s environmental problems has been a major focus of our GreenSchools work.”

Students Present Their Recommendations

Ben Franklin High School students in Baltimore stabilize the Chesapeake By shoreline by planting Bay GrassesUsing the PLT GreenSchools Environmental Quality Investigation, “the kids have studied pollution, met with and made recommendations to the school board, and developed a major presentation, which they gave several times to various community groups, on the need for clean, green spaces to serve our community,” said Joy. Ben Franklin’s Green Team also presented with the national PLT office at a regional National Science Teachers Association conference.

With the school located just across from Masonville Cove on the Chesapeake Bay, the issues affecting the Bay’s ecosystem have been a major emphasis for Ben Franklin’s Green Team. So have community gardens—an appropriate subject for a school with a curriculum organized around service learning, environmental science, and urban agriculture.

Taking Action to Save the Bay

Ben Franklin High Schools students in Baltimore raise Bay Grasses in their school courtyardPLT GreenSchools encourages schools to develop community partnerships. As part of a partnership with the Baltimore Aquarium, Ben Franklin students raise bay grass in specially constructed wetland containers on the school’s grounds. When the plants mature, students transplant them to floating wetlands in Masonville Cove, where the grasses help filter the water and support marine wildlife.

Working with the Shores of Baltimore Land Trust and the Baltimore Aquarium, Green Team students have played an ongoing role in helping to transform Masonville Cove from a site known for illegal industrial dumping to a model environmental education center and bird sanctuary on 54 acres of reclaimed wetlands.

To anchor soil dredged from Baltimore Harbor so that it will not wash back into the bay, Green Team students planted 3,000 trees and bushes on the site. They also constructed a native wetland pond with a waterfall on the grounds of the environmental education center. “The students did everything—all the digging, all the hauling, all the lifting—to construct the pond,” said Green Team mentor Albina Joy. “They hauled three tons of rock! It’s another project we’re really proud of.”

Ben Franklin High School students in Baltimore plant oyster cages for an oyster gardening project in the Chesapeake BayOysters are another species critical to the health of the Chesapeake Bay’s economy, water, and wildlife. Over the years, the bay’s oyster populations have been reduced to just 2 percent of historic levels because of pollution, overfishing, and disease. Working with the South River Federation, Ben Franklin’s Green Team has undertaken an “oyster gardening” project, “planting” oysters in underwater cages suspended from a dock. When they reach maturity, the oysters are moved to a “sanctuary reef” farther out in the Bay, where they can help filter and clean the water while providing habitat for other marine wildlife.

Joining Forces 

Another major project has been to develop a shared community garden and erect a greenhouse at another nearby PLT GreenSchool, Curtis Bay Elementary/Middle School. “Surveys have shown that many kids would like to have more fresh food,” explained Joy. “The community garden can help make that a reality.”

With a kit purchased from Lowe’s and elbow grease provided by volunteers from financial services firm Price Waterhouse Coopers (another school partner), the greenhouse was installed and is now a spot for students to cultivate fresh produce. The Green Team collects food waste from the school cafeteria, which is composted to fertilize the produce in the greenhouse.

Photos courtesy of Ben Franklin High School.

A Pioneer in GreenSchools Investigations

Teacher and students from St Paul Lutheran School in FL pose in front of their Certified PLT GreenSchools! bannerAs a Florida PLT school, each class at St. Paul Lutheran, from preschool through grade 8, is involved in at least five PLT activities a year, many of which are conducted in outdoor classrooms.

Building on that strong base, in 2010 the school helped pilot the national PLT GreenSchools program. 

Energy Investigation

The student Green Team established a goal to reduce energy consumption for the school facility by 15%. Fifth-grade students, known as the “Electric Cops,” monitor classrooms to make sure doors are kept closed when the air conditioning is on and lights are turned off when a classroom is not in use. They prepared a school-wide graph for a bulletin board to chart each class’s progress. 

Student records data from the school's electric meterClassroom air-conditioning units now have “energy miser” equipment, and new energy-efficient computers were ordered for the computer lab. Students campaigned to get the school to share the cost with a PLT GreenWorks grant to switch florescent light bulbs in one building to STAR energy-saving light bulbs. They are now raising money to do the same for other buildings.

Energy education is part of the curriculum. For example, the 5th grade learns about alternative energy and 6th graders complete a unit examining the advantages and disadvantages of different renewable and nonrenewable energy sources. Middle school students have competed in the Florida Solar Energy Whiz and Innovations competition.

Waste & Recycling Investigation

Students collect materials for recyclingThrough recycling, the school decreased its trash output in a school year by one-half of a dumpster, resulting in a savings of $225. The school has compost bins and worm bins, along with a yard waste compost area. The school’s learning standards relate to waste reduction and recycling, and the entire school cooperates with weekly recycling efforts.

To encourage reuse, the school has a Swap Day where students can bring items they no longer want to swap with other students. Any extra items are donated to charitable organizations.

Recently, students competed in Keep America Beautiful’s Recycling Bowl. The classes weighed and charted the amount of paper, aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and steel cans they collected and recycled. They have also worked with TerraCycle, which provides free waste collection programs for hard-to-recycle materials such as juice pouches and other food packaging. The Green Team hosted a Monster Mash Candy Wrappers for Cash competition at Halloween.

Students use the money they raise from recycling efforts to stock ponds to help encourage more wading birds to return to the campus.

Water Investigation

Students use rain barrels to water school gardensStudents check faucets, toilets, and water fountains for leaks to make sure water is not being wasted. Rain barrels are used to irrigate gardens, flowerbeds, and other areas on campus. Fifty-five gallons of water are collected daily from condensation from the metal roofs. School gardens use hydroponics and drip irrigationThe gardens use hydroponics and drip irrigation, and SoxxTM to reduce water run-off and help stop erosion.

The water cycle and conservation is part of the 2nd and 3rd grade curriculum. State and national water education curricula are used with students, and literature connections play a huge role in student learning. Many grade-level appropriate books are incorporated into the lessons. Water Odyssey, a computer program created by Water Management districts, is used with grades 3, 4, and 5.

School Site Investigation

Every week, students work on the many gardens on the campus: butterfly, bird, vegetable, herb, fruit, flower, and native plants, as well as literature gardens. The gardens use water from rain barrels, drip irrigation, and other water conservation methods, and they provide kindergarteners through fourth-graders a variety of opportunities for math, science, and health lessons.

When parents and church members tour the gardens, they can read pamphlets that describe the plants grown, why they were selected for the local area, and how they provide wildlife with food or shelter. Interpretive/educational signs about watersheds have been posted on campus.

Turtle garden at St Paul Lutheran School in FLStudents helped design and build a turtle and rain garden as an action project associated with their GreenSchool findings. A nearby gutter and downspout provide the water source for the pond. For the wetland garden, students in grades 4 and 5 surveyed their peers, parents, faculty, and community members for suggestions. Students had leadership opportunities from the beginning, participating in almost all areas of the project—from planning pond design, to planting seeds, to making presentations to other classes in the school. Students also learned to work with community partners, such as the local Extension Office and the Lakeland Garden Club. These partners helped students and faculty learn about selecting and planting native plant species. Students presented this project as part of a webinar for the national PLT office.

When a new road was constructed nearby, many trees were removed and students observed a loss of wildlife as a result. They designed a habitat restoration program using native plants to provide food, water, and shelter to encourage birds and small animals to return to the area. This new area has been certified by the National Wildlife Federation’s Schoolyard Habitat program.

Students in 4th grade and 4-H have partnered with Cornell University to pilot a new curriculum and conduct a bird study. Methods learned from these lessons encouraged the school to plant special plants for the birds’ shelter and food, and new bird boxes have been built and placed in strategic locations. Students take part in a Backyard Bird Count and keep a school list of the birds that visit the campus.

Environmental Quality Investigation

St Paul Lutheran School students and their teacher Deb WagnerThe school has adopted an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plan. (IPM is a sustainable approach to managing pests by combining biological, cultural, physical, and chemical tools in a way that minimizes economic, health, and environmental risks.) Proper warning signs are posted when pesticides are used.

The school has also adopted practices that mandate proper labeling, use, storage, and disposal of chemicals, such as cleaning and laboratory chemicals. These practices include, where possible, the reduction in the use of these chemicals.

The campus is very open. Most hallways are outdoors and air circulation is good. Air conditioner units are checked and filters are cleaned monthly. Carpooling is encouraged for team sports by the students as well as for teachers traveling to teacher conferences.

Using Technology as an Entry Tool to Nature

For me, getting kids outside and excited about nature is paramount. Yet today’s generation of children is consumed with technology. So, why not bring technology outside?

Technology is an entry tool that can make learning about the natural world exciting and fun. It keeps students engaged, and it has the capacity to satisfy a child’s curiosity instantly.

Many people have smart phones and take them everywhere.  Teachers can take advantage of this technology – their ease of use and the tremendous amount of information they can provide very quickly – to engage students in learning.

parents and students using QR codeRecently I designed a class project that incorporated smartphone technology and encouraged collaboration between older and younger students at two nearby schools.

The Sewall Woods Digital Trail

We named our GreenWorks! project The Sewall Woods Digital Trail. The project incorporated learning about the natural history of a local forest, an authentic purpose for writing, and technology. The Kennebec Estuary Land Trust (KELT) was an important partner in this initiative. 

My third grade class and seventh grade students from a nearby school worked together for this project. One of the main projects was creating signage along a beloved nature trail in Bath, Maine.

The section of Sewall Woods that we focused on is part of a popular five-mile-long trail that winds its way through Bath. The students created a digital interpretative guide—the first of its kind in the region!—that can be accessed online or on the trail by QR (Quick Response) technology, activated by smart-mobile phones.

Throughout the project the students worked together in groups, connecting and interacting with each other and their environment.     

student groupThe Process

During the 2011–2012 school year, the students traveled to the Sewall Woods property on four occasions. They recorded observations at eight interpretive spots on the trail.

Since the third grade science curriculum focuses on the forest community, the information at each stop emphasizes interesting trees and forest features. Much of the students’ knowledge about trees was obtained through classroom lessons from PLT resources (see below for the activities we used).

students demonstrate trailSmall groups of students were assigned to a location along the trail, where they collected their observations in a special binder. They determined what they thought was important for a visitor to notice at each location. They continued to research their topics with assistance from the seventh graders and members of the Land Trust. They summarized their research and wrote brief interpretative messages to be posted on a web page.

The QR code is the link between the sign along the trail and the website. When a QR code is scanned using a smart phone, it takes the user to a specific website. Our QR codes direct participants to pages  connected to the school’s and the KELT’s websites. (Note that many free online sites generate QR codes in a matter of seconds—you key in a URL and a QR image is created that you can then use on signs, brochures, or anyplace else you would like.)

PLT’s GreenWorks! grant was used in part to lease the technology for a few months. In addition to having devices on hand for the students to try out during development, parents and community members tested the QR codes during a trail opening celebration in June.

The grant also helped fund the signs and field supplies. On opening day, visitors walked to the eight different interpretive signs to scan the QR codes, and students were at each spot ready to answer questions and share research.

PLT Tie-Ins

children use QR code sign

I used these activities from PLT’s PreK-8 guide that fit with what we were trying to accomplish:

Introductory Period

#87 Earth Manners
#61 The Closer You Look
#68 Name That Tree
#21 Adopt a Tree

Fall Lessons

#64 Looking at Leaves
#78 Signs of Fall
#22 Trees as Habitats

Spring Lessons

#22 Trees as Habitats
(we revisited this lesson in a different season)
#23 The Fallen Log
#65 Bursting Buds
#30 Three Cheers for Trees!
#27 Every Tree for Itself
#32 A Forest of Many Uses 

Lessons from our Project

The students learned a lot about the natural environment around them throughout this project. They also learned how to teach others and participated in a project that brought their knowledge to their community. Here are some suggestions – five powerful learning tools – that I would like to pass on to other educators:

  1. Technology, in this case QR codes, create more interest and accessibility to the trail or ecological concept.
  2. Using a local natural area encourages students to appreciate a natural gem in their own “backyard.”
  3. Older students are inspiring role models to younger students.
  4. Selecting PLT lessons that connect with objectives enriched the learning experience.
  5. Collaboration, in our case between the local land trust and different age students, is a powerful learning tool.

Students and Teachers Make It Happen

From its opening during the 2011-2012 school year, Eisenhower High School emerged as a leader in Kansas environmental education. Ecology and biology teacher and Green Team mentor Denise Scribner has been at the forefront of statewide efforts to green Kansas schools, serving on the leadership team that developed the state’s environmental literacy plan.

In the school’s first year of operation, Scribner was  honored by the White House Council on Environmental Quality with the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators, and Eisenhower was named to the 2012 inaugural class of 78 Green Ribbon Schools by the U.S. Department of Education. In 2016, Scribner received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

Eisenhower is a leader tapping into volunteer consultants from the local community, county, and state. Experts in subjects ranging from raptor rehabilitation to hazardous waste to land management enhance the school’s environmental curriculum and engage students with their real-life career choices. Eisenhower is also at the forefront of technology for learning, to include iPod downloads, interactive websites, research facility webcams and webinars, and virtual web labs that allow students to experience environmental science on a global scale. Environmental education finds its way into all of Eisenhower’s academic disciplines, with English classes reading Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold, and debate teams using environmental issues for their competitions.

A Natural Tie

“Kansas is an agricultural state with strong ties to the land, so the state’s focus on environmental literacy is natural,” Scribner noted. Eisenhower’s partnership with PLT GreenSchools—and a cooperative agreement signed in 2012 between PLT GreenSchools, the Kansas Association of Conservation and Environmental Education, Kansas Green Schools Network, and the National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools USA—“brings national attention to our efforts in the Midwest,” she added. Scribner relies on some 20 activities from PLT’s Environmental Education Activity Guide for grades K-8 as a springboard for the more complex PLT GreenSchools Investigations.

The list of her students’ accomplishments is impressive. They completed the PLT GreenSchools Energy, Water, and Waste & Recycling Investigations—and  developed new problem-solving skills in the process. While they were conducting field investigations at an aquatic pond at nearby Goddard High School, they discovered that the pond’s water did not contain sufficient oxygen to support the species that lived there. They devised a solution—a way to harvest wind energy to aerate the pond—and won a grant to finance the wind power.

Outdoor Learning

Eisenhower students received a grant for a new Outdoor Wildlife Learning Site (OWLS) with habitat and native plants that provide food, shelter and water for wildlife. “The students are responsible for all of it,” Scribner said, “so they are learning leadership skills too.”

The site includes 300 culturally significant native plants in a garden that is fully accessible to visitors with disabilities. The plans also include over-seeding an area  with native prairie grasses, which will be subject to a “no spraying, no mowing” policy.

The whole school is involved. “As our students develop a nature trail, our media department is making a video to document the project, and art students are developing a series of ‘Art on the Prairie’ ceramic pieces that will be displayed along the trail,” explained Scribner. The site has been designated an official Monarch Way Station for  migrating butterflies.

Young Students, Big Results

Environmental awareness permeates Lothrop Science and Technology Magnet School, a pre-K through fourth-grade school in Omaha, Nebraska. Its curriculum features a consistent, daily focus on reduction, reuse, and recycling, and all its environmental community service projects are student-designed and student-led in order to build “competence, confidence, and responsibility.”

Community service is a requirement for all students, and all service-learning projects have an environmental focus. Students work to resolve community problems, build outdoor classrooms, mentor other schools to develop environmental programs, and experiment with alternative pest control procedures. This school-wide commitment earned Lothrop Magnet Center a place in the 78-member inaugural class of U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools  in 2012.

The school reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by over one-third in one year by changing to energy-efficient bulbs. Students receive training to reduce water use  and plant native species of vegetation on the school grounds. Classrooms have student “plumbers” and “electricians” assigned to monitor water and energy use, report leaks and wasteful practices, and recommend improvements.

Students at Lothrop take recycling a step further than just collecting and sorting recyclables.  As they sort through the items they have collected, they discuss ways they could have prevented the things from being thrown away in the first place—for example, by using cloth instead of paper towels, or regular dishes instead of single-use paper or plastic plates. They are also creative in finding new uses for items usually thrown away. For example, they now collect juice boxes from six other schools, and use them to plant seeds in a sunflower research project with one of their community partners, the Lauritzen Gardens Botanical Center.  

Lothrop students also have learned about vermicomposting—using worms to create rich composted soil—through school assemblies and science classes on worm biology. They have taken what they learned to the community, distributing worms and teaching the public about vermicomposting on Earth Day. This knowledge is put to good use, not only in the student-managed garden, but also in the community, where Lothrop students share their knowledge of green gardening and Earth-friendly pest management techniques with homeowners.

More Green Time, Less Screen Time with PLT Tree Farm Tour

It has long been our belief that if children are given an opportunity to experience the beauty and fun of being outdoors on a Tree Farm, the forest will come to life in a way that leads them to unplug from iPods, Playstations, cell phones, and television in order to connect more with the amazing world of nature.

For the last 21 years, rain or shine, this is exactly what has happened on the first Thursday of June when 4th graders from St. Michael’s School in Olympia, Washington, descend on our Tree Farm in nearby Frances for a PLT tour.


Embracing the Day

This year as we waited for the children to arrive, the rain came down harder and harder. The eight foresters who helped lead the tour began arriving about an hour before the kids and I was reminded once again of the great people we have in this industry!  They showed up with smiles on their faces, rain gear to wear, and excitement to share their love of the woods with the next generation. One forester offered to set up a huge canopy to keep the kids dry. Another brought various sizes of rain coats and boots from his own kids to share with anyone who wasn’t prepared for the deluge. I had baked goodies and made coffee for them. As the  foresters visited, I realized how important it is that we share their knowledge and love of the outdoors with folks who don’t have the opportunity to live connected to nature. 

As we welcomed the kids and their parents, it became increasingly clear that this was, without a doubt, the most rain we ever had for a tour!  This became the perfect time to pass on a little “life lesson” by sharing these words written by an unknown author: “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”  This is especially true for those of us living in the Pacific Northwest!  So, we all embraced the day just as it was and moved forward with the planned activities.

Demonstrating Stewardship

We displayed pictures from past PLT events and pictures of the five generations of my family who have nurtured this land over the last 124 years. Our son Tim demonstrated how to “make square boards from a round log” by showing how our Mobile Dimension Sawmill operates. This is always fascinating for people who have never seen it before, and they love the wonderful fragrance of freshly milled Cedar as they examine the boards.

Next, we loaded the kids on a haywagon, and my husband, Bob, drove them out to the woods where the foresters had set up stations to teach about their particular area of expertise. This was something new we tried this year—in the past we had divided the class into small groups and had a forester lead each group through a walk in the woods, teaching along the way. Bob suggested rotating through stations so kids could learn about a variety of topics including tree identification, plot sampling, log scaling, fish habitat restoration on the creek, road building, insect pests, using compasses, and taking core samples from a tree. We all agreed that this new way of having different stations worked really well.

Connecting Kids to Nature

In spite of the rain, I was impressed with the resiliency of everyone as I listened to the chatter while we passed from station to station!  But what struck me the most was a question from one young boy who came up to me and asked very seriously, “So, what do you people do for entertainment out here?”  I replied that when I was growing up, we walked in the woods, raised vegetables in the garden, played at the creek, and worked in the hayfields. The boy reiterated, “But what do you do for fun?  Do you have television?”  I told him that we did have it but didn’t spend much time watching it as there was a whole world outside to explore. He persisted with this line of questioning saying, “Do you play games?”  I told him that we did play baseball, croquet, marbles, and some board games. He responded, “I meant video games–what type of game console do you have?” For a moment I was speechless–he was absolutely serious!  I shared with him that the entire outdoors was “my game console” and there were wonderful discoveries to be made each and every day.

As the boy moved on to eat his lunch, I was left pondering that conversation and I shared it with Rex, one of the foresters. He shook his head and said that is exactly why education programs like PLT are so very important. He said that when he was a kid, they’d play pick-up baseball and go fishing at the creek. Now, he feels sad that so many kids are glued to some type of screen and seldom get outside.

I had similar thoughts as I was saying thank-you and goodbye to another forester. Dale is a neighbor (anyone living within five miles of each other is a neighbor!) and he had been a close friend of my dad’s all his life. At 87 years old, he is still out in the woods, sharing his wisdom with  young people. He was climbing over logs and completely “at home” in the forest. His example clearly illustrates what it means to live a life of stewardship in harmony with nature, and he gives testimony to the importance of passing this on to the next generation. 

Making Learning in the Outdoors Fun

If we expect the next generation to follow in our footsteps, care for the land, and be stewards of its natural resources, we must give them opportunities to get outside, connect with nature, and develop a love for the natural world. Because young people today are plugged in to electronics, spending more and more time inside–not outdoors learning, or playing, or exploring–it’s more important than ever that we give them fun and engaging experiences in the woods. Whether you’re an educator, a forester, or a family forest owner, a parent or a grandparent, PLT is one of the best tools I know to get kids outside, having fun and learning at the same time.

In all our 21 years of experience leading PLT Tours on our Tree Farm, we’ve always found the children enjoy their visit – in spite of what the weather may bring!  Even the young boy who plays video games for entertainment had fun, and at least we know we opened his eyes to a whole new world.

A Win-Win Scenario at a Florida PLT GreenSchool

St. Michael Lutheran School (SMLS) is a K-8 parochial school on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Its 380 students come from throughout Lee County.

Students at St. Michael Lutheran school collect and weigh trash for recyclingSMLS has been a Florida PLT School for more than a decade. Through this program, at least half the teaching faculty has attended a PLT workshop, PLT activities are incorporated into the curriculum or there is a designated PLT Week, and the school has a PLT Coordinator. 

“PLT gives us at St. Michael an opportunity to live out our convictions in word and deed,” said principal Robert Ziegler. “Caring for the environment is a win-win scenario that teaches us to be be self-disciplined and care for things things outside ourselves.”

Becoming a PLT GreenSchool was a team effort, as middle school science teacher Katie Schlotterbeck recalled, involving students, teachers, staff, and the community. For example, the school’s director of finance and bookkeeper helped students gather and analyze data, as did the head of maintenance. The cafeteria manager supported recycling efforts, and electricians in the community helped install sensors to reduce electricity usage.

Knowledge led to action. ““I taught a lesson on biodegradability in October to all of my middle school classes and afterwards the amount of water bottles and soda cans that were recycled at lunch increased,” Schlotterbeck noted. “We all need reminders.”

In addition, the action extended from school to home. As seventh-grader Alex Quattrone said, “The recycling things that we have learned at school, I have brought home and taught my family.”

Another student, McKenzie Campagnolo, added, “GreenSchools has helped me learn what I can do not only to help my school, but to help my home and community. It was fun to do this with my friends and know that I was making a difference.”

Energy Investigation

Student at St. Michael Lutheran school in Florida uses a light meter to record lighting levels in the schoolThrough their investigation, 6th graders recognized the difference in energy usage between six rooms that had motion-activated light sensors and the rest of the campus. Their action project: installing more light sensors throughout the school. A local contractor partnered with the students to help them figure out which sensors to use and how to calculate the projected savings. Another electrician volunteered his time to install 52 sensors. The students determined that electricity bills did not rise from 2007 to 2011 (latest figures available), even though electricity rates had significantly increased. 

Students at St. Michael Lutheran school use a watt meter to record energy usageThe project was integrated into school curricula through lesson plans and activities at all levels. A school poster contest, skits, and other student-led activities also extended the learning throughout the school.

Waste and Recycling Investigation

Students reflected on the amount of waste produced by the school and considered how much of it could be recycled. They created a Recycling Club and instituted recycling in classrooms and the cafeteria. Students monitor and empty the containers, and help fellow students to establish a “recycling routine” at lunchtime.

The investigation also resulted in other changes. Removing small waste cans from classrooms reduced use of plastic liners by 80 percent. Printing on both sides of the page and relying more on email than printed communication reduced paper usage.

“Coming to Saint Michael in the 7th grade, I learned just how green this school is,” said student Danielle Cambareri.  “At SMLS, we don’t just recycle paper, we recycle bottles and cans and all the classrooms have motion sensors which save on electricity.”

Student at St Michael Lutheran School in Florida reads and records the school's electricity and water metersWater Investigation

The students discovered that 7% of the faucets and 5% of the toilets leaked. They advocated for repair and replacement of broken toilets with low-flow models. The water bill has remained constant since 2007, despite a local increase in the cost of water.

Water education is taught in all classes, with a major emphasis in grades 3, 4, and 6.

School Site Investigation

The school has several gardens: a butterfly garden, as well as those planted with vegetables, flowers, and fruit. Students added a hydroponics garden that uses rainwater caught in barrels. A small outdoor pond houses turtles that have outgrown classroom aquariums. Students attending the school’s summer science camp mapped, labeled, and tagged all the trees on campus.

Different grade levels now regularly use the outdoor space to enhance learning—from a courtyard area, to the gardens, to the soccer field for science activities.

Environmental Quality Investigation

Students have focused on indoor and outdoor air quality. They help in monthly monitoring and maintenance of the ventilation system, which includes changing classroom air-conditioning filters.

Three no-idling zones were set up on the campus. Students measured 800 pounds of carbon dioxide produced before no-idling signs were installed, compared to 425 pounds afterwards.

An Endangered Tree Mobilizes an Arkansas School

With a name like “Acorn,” it was probably fated that the elementary school in Mena, Arkansas, would embrace environmental education.

Located in rural southwestern Arkansas, the Acorn School’s 15-acre campus includes a vegetable garden and greenhouse. A forest adjoining the campus provides also opportunities for environmental learning. It was there that science teacher Kathy Rusert’s students discovered an endangered tree species, the Ozark Chinquapin (Castanea ozarkensis). Since discovering the Chinquapin, Rusert and the entire 700-student school have made the endangered tree the centerpiece of efforts to build community awareness to protect the species.

Once common in the arid soil of Missouri and Arkansas, the naturally rot-resistant wood of the Ozark Chinquapin was prized for railroad ties and fence posts. Unsustainable logging practices reduced the numbers of trees. Then, the Chinquapin (sometimes called the Ozark Chestnut) succumbed to chestnut blight, which all but wiped out the species from the Ozark landscape.

A Labyrinth with the Tree in the Center

With the leadership of Kathy Rusert (one of Project Learning Tree’s National Outstanding Educators in 2012), students built a labyrinth behind the school grounds, with a Chinquapin at its center. An interpretive sign explains the tree’s plight—and what area residents can do to protect the native species. With help from a PLT GreenWorks! grant, over 250 students worked on building the outdoor space. Students also have planted blight-resistant Ozark Chinquapin seeds, and monitor their growth.

One of the first group of schools to be named by the U.S. Department of Education as a Green Ribbon School, Acorn was cited for the community partnerships that benefit its environmental programming. These include a partnership with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in which student teams monitor water quality. It was Acorn’s students who initiated the application for nomination as a Green Ribbon School by the Arkansas state education agency.

A commitment to environmental quality also infuses the school. Acorn implements all Environmental Protection Agency environmental health recommendations, including integrated pest management practices and contaminant control protocols.

Gardens, Gutters, Gophers, and GreenSchools

Walden Community School is an independent middle and high school in Winter Park, Florida. It supports small class sizes and individualized learning for its students, and PLT has been a part of the curriculum for several years. In fact, Walden was one of five Florida schools that helped pilot the national PLT GreenSchools program in 2010.

Students have used PLT GreenSchools investigations to make a number of changes on the campus, particularly related to water usage. They have learned to discuss the impact of even small changes on their own school and on the broader environment.

“Our students are very civically involved,” said Carol Mikulka, Walden’s founder and principal. “Environmental education is part of that, whether it’s through a course on problem-solving, investigating systems, or engineering.”

In an interview in Playground Magazine, she commented, “Project Learning Tree provides schools with the resources to educate about environmental issues. More than that, it helps you integrate lessons about the environment into every class, from math to English and more.” 

Energy Investigation

The school uses natural lighting and ceiling fans to help reduce energy usage as much as possible. Students learned that opening non-sun-facing window shades allowed in more natural light and could reduce the use of artificial light sources by about 25% (an average of 2 hours a day). Also, by installing ceiling fans, the students found that air-conditioning could be set at 77 degrees instead of 75 without any change to student or staff comfort level.

Waste and Recycling Investigation

Many Walden art projects use recycled materials, such as cans and scraps of cardboard. The school also created classroom manipulatives with previously used paper.

Students are regularly introduced to the concepts of waste and recycling through discussions, field trips, and videos. The Analytical Reasoning Courses also challenge students to find alternative uses for materials.

Water Investigation

Students at Walden Community School in Florida look at water erosion from a gutter downspout at their schoolStudents decided that the area of concern on which they could have the greatest influence related to outdoor watering practices. They learned about using rainwater for irrigation on a field trip, and were excited about implementing this practice on campus to save water and to reduce soil erosion from rain gutters. They created a plan to use rain barrels to harvest water to irrigate three new school gardens: a vegetable and herb garden, a xeriscape garden, and a “gopher tortoise café” in which students also investigate food preferences of resident tortoises.

The  pilot GreenSchools grant supported this effort. Students were involved in preparing the grant application and suggested the project title: Gardens, Gutters, and Gophers.

In a weekly class called Investigating Systems, students planned the project. Small groups were assigned specific locations to map and plan landscaping. They developed a relationship with a local nursery, whose staff provided advice on plant selection for native and xeriscape species. Students, faculty, and parents attended a workshop on rain harvesting at the local zoo, where they created nine rain barrels for the campus. Students used problem-solving skills to suggest possible solutions for gutter erosion issues and water pressure challenges in the rain barrels. They also wrote updates for the school’s website and newsletter.

In an engineering class, students created projects and presentations on different watering systems, such as aqueducts, modern plumbing, and rain barrels. In these projects, they talked about the needs and capabilities of different systems in different places.

School Site Investigation

Students helped plan, organize, and plant a garden with plants both for eating and for supporting a butterfly habitat. A Walden parent who is an organic farmer is now working with the students to set up two organic vegetable plots.

Environmental Quality Investigation

Bennett Garfinkel, who joined the faculty in 2013, talked about using PLT and other EE with his students at the start of recent school year. “We will be doing hands-on experiential learning,” he said. “We will also be looking at the science behind the headlines—what a greenhouse gas really is, how the data is collected, and what rising sea levels mean for us.”