Q: Our middle school STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Club wants to celebrate Earth Day by creating "green" guidelines for our school. The students can't agree on what that means. As a parent and STEM mentor, I'd like concrete outcomes. Do you have any suggestions?
A: That's a worthy project for Earth Day, which is April 22. It has the potential to change district environmental practices and increase student engagement. There's research showing that "healthy, sustainable schools actually save money and raise test scores while safeguarding our children's health," notes Deborah Moore, a California environmental scientist who helped start the Green Schools Initiative (greenschools.net).
"Green schools" share four characteristics: They strive to be toxin-free and adhere to green building practices in construction. They "reduce, reuse and recycle," use resources sustainably and make energy-efficient choices. Green schools promote healthy choices for students, such as "green" playgrounds and junk food-free lunches. Green schools also get kids involved in many ways, by integrating environmental education into the curriculum, providing hands-on experiences (such as planting gardens), doing research (such as energy audits), and involving students in the maintenance of the school and the grounds.
Looking at those characteristics, guide the STEM Club members in deciding what to tackle. A first step, suggest folks at the Green Schools Initiative, is forming a Green Team that includes representatives from school stakeholders -- students, teachers, custodians, facilities managers, parents and a school board member. The STEM club can organize and manage the team's work.
Next, craft and adopt a Green Schools vision statement that resonates with students. Prominently display the statement, which should be supported by a resolution from the school board, parent-teacher organization and other influential entities.
Have the STEM Club audit the school's environmental impact to identify top priorities for action -- from assessing school lunch waste, to finding inefficiencies such as leaky fountains or computer equipment that's left on overnight. (There's a useful auditing tool at greenschools.net; click on the "Take the Quiz" link to see how green your school is.)
Using the results, create a one-year action plan that sets such realistic and measurable goals as improving the school's recycling program, planting a garden, eliminating toxic herbicides and pesticides on school grounds or purchasing nontoxic cleaning supplies. Decide how to roll out and measure the plan over the course of a year. Work with teachers to incorporate lessons relating to your goals into the curriculum.
If time is short, encourage the club to celebrate Earth Day with an Arbor Day focus on trees. Students can begin by assessing the health of existing trees on school grounds while planting new ones.
"Trees are the ultimate green machines," says Luke Miller, outdoor living editor for Lowe's Creative Ideas and a green-minded tree buff. "Kids learn that shade trees can help keep buildings cooler in summer and that evergreens can help keep buildings warmer in winter. The lessons trees teach us are often a first step in developing a deeper understanding of our environmental challenges and priorities." (For free resources, go to www.arborday.org.)
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)