Green projects at schools: They teach about combating climate change and actually do it, too

As schools adopt green-minded projects, the use of solar panel arrays, rooftop gardens and cafeteria composting serve a dual function: They reduce schools' carbon footprints while teaching students about sustainability with real-world examples.

“We try to target (climate change) from a critical standpoint without creating climate anxiety, which is absolutely a real threat. How do we do that? I think, for us, it's about being climate optimists,” said Michelle Titterton, the science department chair at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein. “It's about getting people excited about what it would be like to have this clean lifestyle and how everyone can be a part of that.”

Titterton, Carmel's newly named campus sustainability manager, helped spearhead new environmental programs at the school after earning her master's degree in sustainability from the University of Wisconsin during the height of the pandemic.

The more Titterton learned more about climate change, the more she realized “this is really, really urgent, and you need to do something about it,” she said.

“As an educator, and as a science teacher, I just feel passionate about not only educating our students but their families,” she said. “When we teach, we're not just teaching the kids, we're teaching the whole family and the whole community.”

Since 2019, Carmel has adopted a food waste audit in its cafeteria; a “green team” committee of teachers, staff members, alumni and students; and expanded an “unplugged” program to encourage staff members to limit electricity use.

Students are particularly involved in the food waste audit, where twice a semester they sort through the three types of waste containers — landfill, recycling and compost — and create a pie chart to better understand the community's waste management habits.

Students then take charge of implementing new systems, testing them, getting feedback from other students and creating educational videos for their classmates.

The school also replaced all indoor and outdoor lighting with LED lighting, outfitted drinking fountains with water refill stations, and added three new classes this year: Intro to Sustainability Business, Human Ecological Business and Civil Engineering-Green Building.

At Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, recent additions have helped make the campus's east building the first net-zero building in the state — meaning it produces more energy than it consumes — certified by the International Living Future Institute.

Additions include multiple living green walls of plants, a rooftop greenhouse, exterior gardens and a large solar array.

The greenhouse and gardens support instruction in biology and botany classes, while the green walls, which span two stories, use a sustainable water harvesting system and act as giant biofilters to clean the air and help regulate the temperature.

“Not only are we talking about sustainability in the classroom, but we now have opportunities to authenticate that learning, or reinforce or model that behavior,” Assistant Superintendent Sean Carney said.

The additions to the east building, one of two on the campus's 76 acres, were made possible by a $1 million grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation.

Another area where schools are beginning to make progress is in transportation. Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 operates its own fleet of buses — and 40% run exclusively on propane.

For the 2022-23 school year, the district had 62 propane buses and has recently approved the purchase of more, district spokeswoman Erin Holmes said. The buses have an extended fuel tank capacity when compared to diesel buses, which helps cut fuel costs in addition to being a more “green approach.”

Propane vehicles release significantly less nitrogen oxides and particulate matter into the atmosphere than either diesel or gasoline vehicles, reducing the buses' contributions to ground-level ozone pollution — commonly known as smog.

While propane vehicles release less greenhouse gases than gasoline vehicles, they are about neck and neck with diesel vehicles. Because of their carbon footprint limitations, experts say propane is a good, financially viable option for fleets until other technologies such as electric- and hydrogen-powered vehicles mature and become more affordable.

Diana Mikelski, director of transportation at District 211, said that while electric buses are on her radar, the district is holding off on going electric due to concerns about cost, range and charging infrastructure.

Mikelski said one electric bus costs the same as three propane buses, and while federal grants such as the Clean School Bus Program have begun distributing rebates for electric and low-emissions buses, District 211, Chicago and other school districts didn't qualify for the first round of allocations.

“I still continue to gather any info I have. I've attended conferences, and electric has always been on the forefront of conversations,” Mikelski said. “It's not going away this time, it's only getting stronger, but it's just not as simple as rolling out an extension cord and plugging in a bus.”

• Jenny Whidden is a Report For America corps member covering climate change and the environment for the Daily Herald. To help support her work, click here to make a tax-deductible donation.

A large rooftop solar array is among recent additions that have helped make Stevenson High School's east building the first net-zero building in the state - meaning it produces more energy than it consumes. Courtesy of Stevenson High School
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