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Creating the New School of Cool

One writer returns to her alma mater to see how environmental education is reshaping the way high school students think about the world around them.

As I walk down the green-and-gold-painted science wing at Redmond High School, I see a tall, dark-haired student standing outside a classroom door.

"Hello," says Micah Zeitz. "Come on in."

It's late May and Zeitz is a senior, which means that in a few weeks he'll graduate with 500 or so other students in Redmond High's class of 2010. Today is the last day of class for Independent Science Research, a course developed by 51-year-old teacher Mike Town.

I grew up in Redmond, Washington, a suburb of Seattle and home of Microsoft, and this is my alma mater. The school is the second-largest source of carbon pollution in town, trailing only the Microsoft campus. That fact is not lost on Zeitz and his classmates, who have spent the better part of their time in Town's course breaking down the factors that contribute to the school's carbon footprint and overall environmental impact, devising detailed plans to reduce that impact, and putting those plans into action. Seven students are enrolled in this year's class, and they have embraced the project that is central to the course -- the Cool School Challenge -- with the dedication Town hoped it would inspire when he founded it three years ago. The challenge has since been adopted by more than 70 schools as far away as Dubai, and teachers from at least 150 other schools have attended workshops that prepare them to implement the program on their own.

Zeitz leads me into the classroom, where five other students are gathered around a beat-up beige sofa. Town, wearing a long-sleeve purple shirt with trees printed on it, paces in front of the chalkboard and eventually settles in behind his desk, allowing his students to walk me through what they've been up to this semester.

Head of the Class

The Cool School Challenge can be administered by anyone your school designates to be what's called a Challenge Coach -- a science, math, or other teacher; a school administrator; or the leader of a student organization. Cool School's online course materials are tailored for secondary or elementary grade levels, and each set includes how-to instructions for conducting classroom audits and measuring CO2 emissions. The Cool School Web site also offers additional online resources for those who want to take the challenge even further.

Jeremy Dance, also a senior, fills me in on the core component of the Cool School Challenge: schoolwide carbon auditing. "First we go into each teacher's room and conduct a pre-audit," he explains. The students survey the basics: lighting, appliances, heating, and transportation to and from school. Back in their own classroom, they plan their audit, which involves returning to each classroom to take more precise measurements.

Zeitz then shows me a tool called a Kill A Watt, which the class uses to measure electricity consumption. "With one of these Kill A Watts we are able to get an accurate read of how much you can save, dollar- and CO2-wise, if you unplug a monitor, projector, or printer or leave it in sleep mode," he says. Kill A Watt's manufacturer sells several models, including one that looks like a power strip with a digital display that shows you how much power is being consumed by whatever appliance has been plugged in. "We found out that some things use a lot more energy than we thought," Zeitz says. He points to one of the old overhead projectors that, I remember, hummed loudly throughout my high school days.

After the students gather energy consumption data, they run the numbers to identify potential savings. "Then we have the teachers look at our results and tell us what they can do to improve," Zeitz says. The students encourage pledges of at least 2,000 pounds in carbon cuts from each of the more than 60 teachers at the school. In response, some teachers and their students have made an effort to make sure that computer monitors are shut off after class, while others have focused on setting up carpools for teachers who travel long distances to get to school.

All told, the Cool School audit -- combined with school-wide, student-run composting and carpooling programs and the building's newly installed solar panels -- is delivering significant savings. Last year alone, these initiatives saved more than $10,000 in waste-removal costs and $30,000 in electric utility expenses and eliminated 230,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. The school now emits about half as much carbon as it did when I was a student there.

The bell for lunch rings, students shuffle out, and I follow Zeitz and two classmates, Laci Castro and Sarah Kim, outside into the bustling courtyard beside the cafeteria to see Redmond High's 30 solar panels -- a number that has grown to 45 since my visit.

As we stare up at the 2-by-3-foot crystalline silicon panels gleaming under rare Pacific Northwest sunshine, Zeitz explains that the cheaper, thin-film panels wouldn't work well in this setting. The roof's not right, he notes. "These are more expensive to begin with but produce a lot more power. They end up powering most classrooms in the school."

image of Lynne Peeples
Lynne Peeples is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in several publications, including Scientific American and Audubon Magazine. In her previous life, she was a biostatistician analyzing data from environment... READ MORE >
Great article, Ms. Peeples. I just forwarded it to a school superintendent friend in a suburban Kansas City district.