How green schools foster the relationship between students and nature
As we become more aware of our environmental impact, green building design is an increasingly popular approach to new development. Many new buildings use eco-friendly materials and are designed for energy efficiency, focusing on reducing waste. The number of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified building projects in the United States rose from just 41 in 2000 to over 69,000 in 2019.1 So it makes sense that many school districts consider designing new facilities to be “green schools,” with a reduced environmental impact and a focus on sustainability.
Educators and administrators at Forest Edge Elementary School, a brand new K–6 facility that is part of the Oregon (WI) School District, are getting a firsthand education in the power of green schools.
Why design an eco-friendly building for elementary students?
When community growth prompted the Oregon School District to commission a new elementary school, district officials had a bold vision. The building would be environmentally friendly and a net-zero school — creating as much or more energy than it uses. Forest Edge, which opened in the fall of 2020, is heated and cooled by 90 geothermal wells and electric water-source heat pumps. Over 1,700 solar panels on the school’s roof harness solar energy, which can be used, stored in the building’s 125kW battery, or sold back to the electrical grid.
At Forest Edge, green building design is “grounded by the concepts of energy,” explains principal Kerri Modjeski, “because we were aiming to be the first net-zero school in the state.” About a year after the school opened, it achieved that status and has maintained it. According to school district business manager Andy Weiland, the school’s renewable energy sources and energy efficiency will save the district approximately $60,000 each year. “We had this opportunity to make an experience for kids versus a traditional school,” says Modjeski. “So that really ignited some fires in my mind in terms of the opportunity to engage kids in the setting.”
Green building design uses nature to shape the learning environment
The interiors of Forest Edge were designed using biophilic principles, incorporating natural textures, colors, shapes, and plenty of natural light. “There aren’t rooms that don’t have windows,” Modjeski notes, “and I believe that makes a difference.” She recalls an instance at a previous school where one of her teachers struggled with classroom management and mentioned a lack of windows as a potential contributor to the problem. Modjeski was skeptical, she says, but moved the class into a room with windows. “And it was night and day for her mental state of mind [and] for the kids,” she observes. Forest Edge not only boasts natural light in every classroom, but the windows also tint automatically in bright sunlight to keep rooms cooler. Windows on the second floor look out into the forest, where, Modjeski says, students have spotted turkeys, raccoons, hawks, coyotes, and white-tailed deer.
The building features community space for each grade level, as well as a STEAM room, Discovery Center (a library with an expanded purpose), and outdoor courtyards. The district turned to Demco to design the Discovery Center and furnish classrooms. The Demco team wove the school’s environmental mission into design elements such as a grass-like carpet and “these big [chairs] — they look like granite, but they’re a light plastic,” Modjeski says. “It’s almost like an egg shape with a seat cut out. Like a stone. And kids have picked up on that: Oh yeah, these look like boulders sitting in the grass!” Walking through the school on any given day, she shares, you’ll find students working collaboratively, meeting one-on-one with teachers, lounging, reading, and strolling through the building’s open spaces.
Students in a green school learn about their environmental impact
Beyond enjoying the benefits of green building design, Forest Edge students are engaged in learning about the school’s environmental impact, their connection with nature, and how they can play a role in protecting the planet. Each of the grade-level community spaces (or “pods”) has a different theme around the concept of “energy grounded in nature,” Modjeski explains — for example, wind or thermal energy. These areas offer visuals and information for students to browse and will soon have interactive screens that can show users the building’s energy use by the day, month, or year. Ultimately, Modjeski says, “we’re trying to get kids to understand their impact on our use, and how they can make choices that will then decrease the amount of energy we’re using.”
The school also includes a number of spots where students can view its eco-friendly design components up close. “[From] the second floor, visually, kids are able to see all the solar panels that are on the building, which is really neat,” Modjeski says. “We purposely put small group areas in places where [students] can then overlook and understand, with signage and information about what they’re seeing.” Similarly, she notes, there is a window cut out of a wall that shows students the geothermal pumps at work.
Eco-friendly buildings encourage students to get outdoors
The school building was designed to bring students closer to nature. But it also brings them all the way into nature by taking them outside. Modjeski says, to prepare for the school’s garden, last year’s fourth-grade classes studied geometry, measuring the space and calculating how many beds would fit and how much soil they would need. “Those kids did all the planning and organizing,” she notes. This year, individual classes have been assigned to study specific plants, while summer school students will learn how to cook with the garden vegetables, and a ‘green team’ will work with the kitchen to begin composting. “That will be a kids-run garden,” she says.
The school also features a story walk, where, Modjeski says, “you could do a natural loop around the building, and you could read a page of a story at each stop.” Additionally, during Covid, classes take their snack breaks outside. “We’ve tried to get more fresh air,” she notes, “and there’s something about that that I think helps kids stay focused and helps them make better choices.” She adds that the school district owns 15 acres of woods behind the school and is working on adding walking paths and a small environmental center that will be available to students across the district.
The district has a naturalist who has made ample use of the green school’s forest location. “She made a discovery with her nature club last year that we didn’t have enough pollination going on for some of the things they had planted to grow,” Modjeski notes. “And so she put in a pollinator garden and had our fifth and sixth graders really active in understanding what that meant, and how we could enhance nature for critters, insects, etc. by doing this small thing.” From leading students on snowshoeing adventures to teaching them about owl pellets, the naturalist “works to have our kids be stewards of what we have,” Modjeski adds, “whether it’s in the garden, in the woods, [or] in the prairie grasses out front.”
A green school is an exciting place to learn
Forest Edge opened in September 2020, as staff and students had to adapt to social distancing and online learning. Some of the school’s unique furniture — like modular, adjustable-height stools, tiered 3-step units, and the rolling desk chairs that teachers loved — didn’t get much use at first due to at-home learning. Modjeski says she worried when students came back that some would “take their marker to something or cut something,” but says that when students were finally able to fill the building, “I could not believe how kind, how thoughtful, how polite our kids were. There was this energy, this spirit of we get to be the kids in the new school!”
Being entrusted with a new, energy-efficient building is something that students and educators don’t take for granted — much like being entrusted with the stewardship of the land that surrounds it. Students at green schools benefit from their proximity to nature, whether in the form of natural design elements, natural light, or perhaps even a 15-acre forest beckoning from just outside their windows. And eco-friendly design inevitably shapes the relationship that students are developing with the planet. After all, when a school building is designed to have a reduced impact on the environment, that makes a big impact on future leaders.