As schools embrace green projects, the use of solar panels, rooftop gardens and cafeteria composting serve a dual purpose: they reduce schools’ carbon footprint while teaching students about sustainability with real-life examples. .
“We’re trying to target (climate change) critically without creating climate anxiety, which is absolutely a real threat. How do we do that? I think, for us, it’s about be optimistic about the climate,” said Michelle Titterton, scientist. department head at Carmel Catholic Secondary School in Mundelein. “It’s about getting people excited about what it would be like to have that lifestyle of their own and how anyone can be a part of it.”
Titterton, the new sustainability officer for the Carmel campus, helped lead 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 about climate change, the more she realized “it’s really, really urgent, and you have to do something about it,” she said.
“As an educator and as a science teacher, I feel passionate about not only the education of our students, but also that of their families,” she said. “When we teach, we don’t just teach children, we teach 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, alumni and students; and expanded an “unplugged” program to encourage staff members to limit their electricity consumption.
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 waste management habits of the community.
Students then take responsibility for 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 lights, equipped water 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 east building of the campus the state’s first net-zero building – meaning it produces more energy than it consumes – certified by the International Living Future Institute.
Additions include several living green walls of plants, a rooftop greenhouse, outdoor gardens, and a large solar panel.
The greenhouse and gardens support teaching in biology and botany classes, while the green walls, which span two floors, use a sustainable water harvesting system and act as giant biofilters to purify air and help regulate temperature.
“Not only are we talking about sustainability in the classroom, but now we have the opportunity to authenticate that learning, or reinforce or model that behavior,” said Assistant Superintendent Sean Carney.
The additions to the east building, one of two on the 76-acre campus, 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 recently approved the purchase of more, district spokeswoman Erin Holmes said. The buses have an extended fuel tank capacity compared to diesel buses, which helps reduce fuel costs as well as being a “greener approach”.
Propane-powered vehicles release far fewer nitrogen oxides and particulates into the atmosphere than diesel or gasoline-powered vehicles, reducing the contribution of buses to ground-level ozone pollution, commonly known as smog .
Although propane vehicles emit less greenhouse gases than gasoline vehicles, they are about neck and neck with diesel vehicles. Due to their carbon footprint limitations, experts say propane is a good, financially viable option for fleets until other technologies such as electric and hydrogen vehicles mature and become more affordable.
Diana Mikelski, director of transportation for District 211, said that while electric buses are on its radar, the district is holding back from going electric due to concerns about the cost, range and infrastructure of recharge.
Mikelski said an electric bus costs the same as three propane buses, and although federal grants such as the Clean School Bus Program have begun handing out rebates for electric and low-emission buses, District 211, Chicago and other school districts were not eligible for the first round of allocation.
“I continue to gather all the information I have. I’ve been to conferences and Electric has always been at the forefront of conversations,” Mikelski said. “This time it’s not going away, it’s only going to get stronger, but it’s just not as simple as unrolling an extension cord and plugging in a bus.”
• Jenny Whidden is a member of the Report For America body that covers climate change and the environment for the Daily Herald. To help support his work with a tax-deductible donation, see https://www.reportforamerica.org/newsrooms/the-daily-herald-2/.