Nature-inspired lessons for South Florida schools

Michael Garretson, from Broward County Public Schools, in Florida, explains how the students are benefiting from a greener learning environment.

The nation's sixth largest school district, smack in highly-urbanized South Florida, recently turned to Mother Nature for inspiration on eco-friendly construction techniques.

For Broward County Public Schools, the result has been sustainable buildings with reduced operating expenses, smaller footprints, much-needed green space and features that conserve water and energy. A bonus - students and teachers throughout the district are learning how they affect South Florida's environment.

Lately, we have responded to a hiatus in growth by upgrading our oldest and least energy-efficient schools. New roofs will achieve guaranteed cost savings. The parking lots are getting solar-powered lights. We are reforesting the campuses with Florida-native plants.

An initial investment of 2% in green building design, on average, results in a lifecycle savings of 20% of the construction costs. That is a 1,000% return.

"We were in a unique situation," said James F. Notter, our Superintendent of Schools. "We needed space for our growing student population, but we also wanted to protect our natural resources and reduce our operating expenses.

"We knew that we needed to come up with innovative solutions that met all of our needs. Sustainable, environmentally friendly business practices enable us to meet these goals."

Education Leads to Action

Environmental initiatives are not new to our school system. About 15 years ago, we initiated a paper and cardboard recycling program that has resulted in 22,500 tons of paper and cardboard recycled -- 12,000 of those just between 2003 and 2007.

We have also developed curricula to connect our students with the environment. But we recognized the need to pull these concepts into one comprehensive plan that covered everything from facility construction and management to classroom curricula and hands-on programs. The result was our Broward County Public Schools' Environmental Strategic Plan (ESP).

It is a plan that requires a number of partnerships -- from local and state agencies to community groups and environmental organizations, including the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Broward County. We are educating our students, teachers, parents and business partners about environmentally friendly business practices, our connections to the local environment, preservation of finite resources and protection of ecosystems.

Sustainable, attractive buildings are that first step toward educating the community. Waterless urinals, recycling programs, the use of recycled water and energy-efficient lighting are some of the innovations. Our native-plant projects are attracting insects, birds, amphibians and small mammals to our campuses - enhancing the learning environment for our students.

All future buildings will comply with the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. The LEED Green Building Rating System sets standards for environmentally suitable construction. The first will be a LEED-certified media center, sporting large, north-facing windows, at Atlantic Technical Center.

Green Begins With Z

In the meantime, we are building Elementary School Z for classes next fall. The school will feature energy-efficient transformers and a photovoltaic roof. Photovoltaic (PV), or solar cells, convert sunlight directly into electricity.

The electricity will be free. The source, the sun, will be clean and renewable, unlike fossil fuels, which are finite, cause global warming and foul our environment.

There is a famous green quote from Alan M. Edison: "Modern technology owes ecology an apology". While it's true that man's impacts on the environment have led to global warming, water shortages and degraded ecosystems, we hope technologies can also help us improve our environments and protect our natural resources.

That is why Broward County Public Schools has invested time and money into developing the ESP. We are incorporating technologies that use alternative energy, protect, conserve and recycle water, save energy and improve indoor air quality. We want our students, teachers, parents and friends to learn about what we are doing and take some of our ideas home with them. We are educating today's students for tomorrow's world.

Michael Garretson is Deputy Superintendent for Facilities and Construction Management with Broward County Public Schools.

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