Triple Green Status and Still Going Forward

Gwin Elementary Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

Student Interests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Gwin Became a PLT Certified GreenSchool

Energy Investigation

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

Waste & Recycling Investigation

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

Water Investigation

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

Gwin Elementary Tree BandingSchool Site Investigation

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

Environmental Quality Investigation

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

Tapping Into Community Resources

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

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

Tips From Gwin Elementary

  • Questions, not answers

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

  • Start with the School Site investigation

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

  • Look at what you are already doing

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

  • Involve everyone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eco-Themed Mural Brings Pride, Raises Awareness

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

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

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

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

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

Nutritious Results from Digging in the Dirt

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

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

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

Energy, Water and Recycling 

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

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

Paul School MuralTips for Teachers

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

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

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

Learn More

Feeling Inspired?

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

GreenSchools as an Extracurricular Activity

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

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

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

Action and Results

School Site Investigation

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

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

Owasso Classroom LightingEnergy Investigation

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

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

Waste and Recycling Investigation

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

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

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

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

Tips for Teachers

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

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

  • Set achievable goals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Create a demand for recycled items.

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

Students Proliferate Native Plants in a New Greenhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


ELM: Environmental Learning Multiplied, in Denver

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

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

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

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

Adapting a Good Idea from Texas

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

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

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

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

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

The Role for Preservice Teachers

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

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

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

ELM Days

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons Learned

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

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

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

ELM Choices

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

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

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

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

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

Earth Team Reduces Waste, Trash Removal Costs Through School-Wide Project

Students at St. Michael School in Livermore, California, teach other students to sort their trash into different binsWe have been amazed with the success of our school project to reduce waste. Students are working together to teach each other, their teachers, their parents, and community members about the importance of waste reduction, recycling and composting. The project has empowered students through leadership activities and given them a voice on campus.

In just one year, we have reduced our trash removal costs by $1,200 and we are diverting approximately 40% of our waste from the landfill to composting and recycling centers.

When we formed an environmental club at St. Michael School in Livermore, CA, the students were eager to address the issue of waste on our campus. We received a PLT GreenWorks! grant, and students in grades 6 to 8 who form the school’s Earth Team implemented a “4R” program focused on reducing consumption, reusing products, recycling, and rotting.

Students Take the Lead

The Earth Team has flourished in the past 18 months and the direction of the team’s efforts has been driven by the students. We started by addressing recycling and the project has grown as the students became more aware.

To start, Earth Team students conducted a waste audit and established a plan to recycle cans, bottles, Capri Sun containers, candy wrappers, mixed-use paper, and other packaging materials. The team then tackled reducing the use of consumables on the school campus, reusing items, and composting yard clippings and food scraps.

The team kicked off the project with a school-wide assembly facilitated by Livermore Sanitation, our local waste collection company. During the assembly all students learned the basics of waste reduction.

Students at St. Michael School in Livermore, California, made new waste stations that they painted and labelled Garbage, Recycle, and Organic to spell "GRO"The Earth Team then set up waste collection bins in classrooms and around campus for proper sorting of waste. This project had many details that the students coordinated, including:

  • Coordinating the colors with the dumpsters to avoid confusion.
  • Designing posters to attach to the dumpsters, collection bins, and to post around the school.
  • Translating Spanish posters and fliers to engage our Hispanic community in the project.
  • Organizing teams of students to empty containers and to monitor and re-sort trash as needed.
  • Pulling together reports for our weekly whole-school assembly.
  • Writing tips for the school and for students to take home to their families.

The Earth Team took the lead on deciding when and how to educate the students, teachers, and staff at the school as they implemented each step of their plan.

Teachers in each classroom, from kindergarten to 6th grade, conducted lessons on environmental topics, including PLT activities such as Renewable or Not, The Forest of S.T. Shrew, Life on the Edge, and Pollution Search.

One of the activities students of all ages took part in was tracking their trash for a week. Some students conducted scientific experiments to get rid of trash (crush, burn, bury, tear, dissolve), and created a DVD skit about a family recycling. This comprehensive approach across the whole school has enhanced student learning in many ways.

Tips for Success

Get in touch with your waste collection company

One key part of our success was contacting our Public Education/Community Relations Manager at our waste collection company. Sheila Fagliano at Livermore Sanitation has been invaluable to us and has guided us along the way. She is just an email or phone call away when we need advice, assistance, or moral support.

Involve parents and community members

Involve parents and as many community members as possible. PG&E (our local gas and electric company), Zone 7 (our water district), Waste Management, and EEK (Environmental Education for Kids) are just a few of the many groups that have provided us with free educational materials and workshops.

Community organizations that use our campus now follow the students’ lead. For example, a community group that used to place cooking oil in the dumpster now takes it to a facility to be processed into biofuel.

The Girl Scouts took part in one of our projects. When the first wind storm blew our bins all over campus, we came up with a plan to build waste stations on wheels. These stations prevent the bins from being blown around and the wheels make it easy to move them around campus to be emptied and to be used at events held on campus by the school, the parish, and the community. The Girl Scouts took on some of the cost and all of the labor involved in painting our waste stations that show different habitats.

Girl Scout Troop 30157 painted the new waste stations at St Michael School in Livermore, California, for their Girl Scout Silver Award

Our Parent Teacher Group is very supportive and helped organize a rummage sale as part of the reuse component of our project. It included a craft station where kids made art projects out of things that would have ended up in the landfill

Get the principal’s support

When our principal publicly announced his support at a staff meeting, all the teachers in the school became committed to the project. One of the outcomes of this support is the reduction of printing materials. The school administration has moved newsletters, event calendars, and even parent and student handbooks online rather than send home paper copies each week.

Involve the custodial staff

It is also important to ask your custodial staff to participate and educate them about your project and its goals. Be sure that your project doesn’t make their job more difficult. We did our homework and made a proposal to the site director. He is now thrilled that we have reduced the school’s garbage bill by $1,200.

Take advantage of enthusiasm

A month into our project, a group of students working lunch came to an Earth Team member and said, “Shouldn’t we be composting the food scraps?” We hadn’t planned on implementing the 4R’s all at once, but since the interest and enthusiasm was there, we started collecting food scraps and other compostable items without delay.

Encourage students to teach others

Not everyone will be on board right away, but there will at least be a small group of students who are excited to work on these projects. Empower those students to be stewards of the Earth, and encourage them to teach others.

The knowledge and enthusiasm from even a small group of students can spread to an entire community. Just a few months into the project, one Earth Team member was appalled when the kitchen staff put all the trash into the closest dumpster during a community event. She politely explained how the whole process worked, and suggested the Earth Team put laminated strips on the tops of dumpsters, for example, “food scraps,” “no metal,” “cardboard,” etc. The students also put laminated posters in the kitchen with guidelines on how to properly sort waste.

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.