Green buildings foster green thinking

Green school buildings and curricula inspire increased environmental knowledge and behaviors among students, according to a study in the journal Children, Youth and Environments.

Various thinkers have proposed that green buildings could serve as teaching tools for environmental education. Such buildings typically incorporate features like open-air hallways to reduce heating and cooling costs, exposed beams and girders, integrated recycling centers, and recycled and repurposed construction materials.

“The idea is that by being exposed to this innovative design every day at school, along with a sustainable school culture fostered by educators, students will inherently learn and appreciate the importance of green buildings,” says Laura Cole, assistant professor of architectural studies at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

But little research has explored whether this actually works in practice. So to test the theory, Cole identified five schools across the United States representing a spectrum of environmental friendliness, ranging from a private school in New Jersey with a well-established green building to a technology-focused charter school in California without any green features.

She surveyed 399 sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students from these schools about their knowledge of green buildings, attitudes about sustainability, and environmentally responsible behaviors at home and school like recycling, composting, and turning off lights.

Students who attend classes in green buildings have greater knowledge of energy efficiency and environmentally friendly building practices, Cole reports: those from the school with the long-standing green building did best on the test of green building knowledge, while those from the non-green technology school performed the worst.

That analysis covers what kids know, but what about how they act? Again, students from the school with the long-standing green building had the highest level of environmentally friendly behaviors at school. This is likely a result of school culture – the environmental curriculum and the social milieu with teachers and peers supporting green sensibilities – as well as the building itself.

There are fewer differences between schools in environmentally friendly behaviors that students practice at home. A question for future research is what makes students continue green behaviors in other contexts away from school, Cole writes.

The findings are good news in the sense that they suggest that green school buildings do what they are purported to do, learning-wise. But not all school communities have access to green buildings, which are often relatively expensive to build.

So it’s also heartening that Cole found few differences among the remaining three schools in the study: a newly established charter school for the arts with a green building, a private college preparatory school with a partial green renovation, and a Waldorf school with green landscaping features.

“Even a school with a relatively inefficient building design had students with a high level of green building literacy because the school had a very nice outdoor landscaped teaching space, including an outdoor classroom and a learning garden,” Cole says. “Anything educators can do to utilize existing space can help their students’ green building literacy.” – Sarah DeWeerdt | 8 March 2016

Source: Cole L.B. “Green building literacy in the school building: A study of five middle schools in the United States.” Children, Youth and Environments DOI: 10.7721/chilyoutenvi.25.3.0145