Real World Learning About Sustainability

It’s important that we find opportunities for our students to engage in meaningful and authentic learning experiences. There are many options for us to do this through methods such as genius hour, project-based learning or problem-based learning which give students the chance to drive their learning through the power of choice. With these methods, we promote more independence and student choice in learning while also boosting student engagement as students explore and learn about topics of interest or something that sparks curiosity.

A few years ago we started with project-based learning (PBL) in my Spanish classes and part of our focus was on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. (SDGs) which are 17 goals set forth in 2015 with hopes to meet these goals by 2030. Some of the goals focus on helping to reverse damage done by climate change, work toward the elimination of poverty, facilitate the creation of healthy waterways, develop sustainable cities and communities, to name a few. With the SDGs as a focus, students can engage in meaningful real-world projects where they learn to identify a global problem and act locally.

The importance of giving students opportunities like this is to help them understand how they can effect change in the world that will benefit them and others in the future. I spoke with Steve Sostak, educator and founder of Inspire Citizens about the importance of bringing this type of learning into our classrooms. Steve said: “Education for sustainable development and global citizenship enables learners to build the future-focused cognitive skills and dispositions that shape a healthier self, society, and planet. When we take this transformative learning and combine it with imagining our schools as local community centers, students can purposefully apply interdisciplinary learning to co-create a wiser and more compassionate world together.”

Jacob Bennett inside pod at Riverview

When students truly care about an issue, make decisions about their learning path and reflect on that learning, they develop empathy and it also fosters the development of social-emotional learning (SEL) skills. As students build social awareness by connecting with community members and learning about challenges that impact the people and the world around them, they better understand the world they live in and the importance of working together to help others. As students design and work through their own projects, it helps them to develop SEL skills of self-awareness and self-management. Our students need to have an understanding of the world around them beyond their community and by connecting them with meaningful opportunities to make an impact, it will amplify their learning potential and prepare them for whatever the future holds.

Focusing on the SDGs is a way to help students and educators problem solve, communicate, and collaborate about ways that they can implement a project or take action for the world. Every teacher in any grade level or content area can find a way to bring learning about the SDGs into the classroom for the students. In my experience using project-based learning with my Spanish classes, looking at challenges faced in Spanish-speaking countries and finding those same challenges or similar challenges locally, made a tremendous impact on students. The phrase “Think global, act local” has become quite familiar around the world. When we look at these global issues it helps us to become more aware of the issues being faced by members of our own local community and take action.

We have the means between the technology available to us to do the research to explore ideas and to communicate with one another to bring in these real-world, purposeful learning experiences for our students.. Since we are helping to prepare students for the future, it makes sense that we prepare them to face challenges that exist in the world and come up with solutions for them. To find alternate ways of providing food to avoiding poverty to having sustainable cities for example.

Caden Smith and Jacob Bennett working in the pod

Real-world learning in my school

At the start of this school year, my school, Riverview Junior-Senior High School in Oakmont, PA became involved in something that has been a truly meaningful learning experience that will benefit the community and offer authentic learning for students. A few years ago, we had a small hydroponics unit inside a classroom that students worked with. In 2019, the school applied for and received a grant to install a full hydroponic grow pod system outside of the school. One of our teachers, Mr. Michael MacConnell with the help of several students, works in the pod each day and takes care of the plants, cleaning and maintaining the pod.

With experiences such as these, students learn about sustainability through hands-on work. They learn about science and how what they are doing can impact their community and even the world. They are continuing to build on it and they have plans to grow a few thousand plants each month and potentially partner with a local food bank to donate produce. During this process students are learning about real world application of food production, working together on how to solve problems such as lack of food. Students are developing skills of collaboration, problem-solving, time management, critical thinking and engaging in something that is truly unique and more personalized to them. Principal Eric Hewitt is impressed by the work that students are doing. He adds “Work around sustainability is important to our society in general. Getting experience as a high school student puts young people in a great position to move into these careers.

Impact on learning

Educators may wonder why it is important to get kids involved in SDG projects and what the benefits are. MacConnell says that he “finds it very important that students learn about the food supply system. What they think is local and fresh can be from a different state or even country and has created so many greenhouse gasses to get to where it was located.” Looking at learning about the SDGS, MacConnell believes that the “sustainability goals set forth by the UN are a great guide for teachers to teach globalism.” He asks himself “What can I show my students that can make an impact on the world? It’s the small practices they can do in their everyday lives that will drive consumer spending and ultimately company practices.”

Principal Hewitt adds “When you work on a project in the classroom, you rarely get to see how that work is connected to anything else. The Grow-pod project allows students to see a bigger picture. They are not just growing plants but making connections to ensure that the food is being used—connecting with food service and seeing the fruits of their labor being served in our own cafeteria.  That experience expands their vision and helps them see how their work fits in the larger scale of a system.”

Rylee Singhose working with the plants

So what do students think?

Jacob Bennett, a ninth-grader – “I like working in the pod because I like planting.  I like to get my hands dirty”

Caden Smith, an eighth-grader– “I love being in the unit as much as I can.  I like working with my hands and am learning so much.”

Wendy Derry (Aide) – “The impact I see is when the students watch the seeds sprout, grow larger, care for the plant’s needs, and then harvest it for the school to use in the cafeteria.  The whole process is engaging, exciting, and educational for our students.”

Resources to learn more

MacConnell has some suggestions for schools looking to get started with a similar program. He says “We were excited to get a big project like this funded and implemented. Money is out there to help with sustainable spaces/practices. I think it’s important to start small…this year the ecology club and I will be starting a recycling program for the school that will eventually lead to composting and less waste.”

Sostak shared that for educators beginning to take first steps into understanding and using the SDGs, he highly recommends these resources: Flourish Project: SDGs for the Early Years, the Good Life Goals Pack of Actions and the Inspire Citizens Design Sprint which is an excellent tool to explore in designing learning experiences that embed concepts related to sustainability.

We can help students to look at some of the challenges that are faced in the world today and think about how they can be part of the solution. When we empower students to explore solutions, to think critically, to collaborate, and to engage in learning in which they can apply skills they’re learning from different classes, it promotes authentic, real-world experiences that will best prepare them for the future. It shows that we are all in this together.

Related Articles

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Could Be Our Standards 

Think Global Act Local: How to Embed SDGs in Your School and Community

Green School Infuses Nature-based Learning for Sustainable Education

How Sustainable is Your District? Use the GreenPrint from Green Schools National Network

“No more blah, blah blah.”

The youth at COP26, the world’s most important annual climate conference, have been protesting with this chant through the duration of the convening. Young people are ready for action on climate and are tired of meetings that culminate with few actionable steps.

These young people have been educated in sustainability mindset, a way of taking into account impact, accountability, global citizenship and more. And they, rightfully, are disheartened with the current state of politics. This applies to education as well. Over and over again schools are built not according to sustainability measures, and students graduate without having the faintest idea of the impending dangers and opportunities of a world on fire.

The Green Schools National Network has been working against these oversights for years, trying to bridge the gap between the climate unaware and actionable steps. To continue their efforts and leadership they have recently released an updated version of their flagship GreenPrint, a road map for driving purposeful and productive innovation. These updates help broaden the scope of the GreenPrint to comprehensively address three separate but related spheres of influence: health, equity, and sustainability.

“Green Schools National Network recognizes that the systems change work to create the future we desire needs to be faster and more efficient than ever before,” said GSNN Executive Director Jennifer Seydel, Ph.D. “We are proud of the updated GreenPrint, which underscores that we cannot have a sustainable future without an equitable and healthy space for everyone who works, learns, and plays in our schools.”

Green Schools National Network recognizes that the systems change work to create the future we desire needs to be faster and more efficient than ever before.

Executive Director Jennifer Seydel, Ph.D

After years of conducting research and talking with educators and school leaders who are deeply engaged in the work of implementing green school practices, the updated GreenPrint is grounded in three core beliefs:

  • Systemic change endures. GSNN believes healthy, equitable, and sustainable schools can only be achieved through whole-district/whole-school transformation that engages four interdependent systems that define a school: Leadership, Curriculum and Instruction, Culture and Climate, and Facilities and Operations.
  • Equity matters. GSNN believes students from all backgrounds and zip codes and
    regardless of social identities, including gender, sexual orientation, ability, race/ethnicity, and religion/spiritual beliefs, should have an equitable opportunity for academic success and equitable access to healthy environments.
  • Everyone is a leader and a learner. While leadership is key to creating healthy, equitable, and sustainable schools, every member of the school community – staff, students, parents, and community members – has a voice and a hand in creating systems and opportunities that increase engagement, deepen learning, and build the confidence and competence needed to become agents of change for a just and sustainable future.

Additionally, the framework identifies and defines four impact systems that power the levers of change. In any school or district, interaction of these systems – Leadership, Curriculum and Instruction, Culture and Climate, and Facilities and Operations – is necessary to optimize the health of the whole district and its schools and accelerate progress toward strategic goals.

The GreenPrint is organized by these four impact systems and for each system provides core practices to further action.

At Getting Smart, we strongly believe in the importance of a sustainability mindset and that leaders of the future will lead with sustainability in ways that not only pertain to our relationship with the environment but with each other and with time itself. We also believe that wellness and equity are key to building sustainable systems. It’s time to make a difference both locally and globally.  

Download the GreenPrint today and join the sustainability movement. For more information visit

This post is a part of Green Schools campaign. The climate crisis is the most complex challenge mankind has ever faced. It will require collaboration, shared truth and innovation at a scale that has yet to be realized. Through blogs, conversations and events we will focus on what to teach, how to teach it and how to create a climate positive school community so that our upcoming generations know what they are up against and have a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities ahead. You can engage with this ongoing campaign using #GreenSchools. 

How Generation Z is Using Sustainability and Entrepreneurship Education to Save the Planet

 By: Laura Boyd Smidt

Just as they were born into a world with easily accessible technology (and cannot conceive otherwise), members of Generation Z have only known a climate in crisis. From day one, these young people have had to consider the future of a planet threatened by the actions and inactions of humans. For them, the question isn’t if they will see the effects of climate change, but when, and whether they can take steps today that will lessen the impact of this environmental upheaval tomorrow.

This attitude has become the hallmark of Gen Z, those born between 1997-2012, and includes the current high school-age population. Gen Z ranks climate change as their number one concern, according to a 2021 survey by Deloitte. Another study found that members of this generation are more likely than any others to let their concerns for the planet guide their purchasing decisions. With 18-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg as their role model, these young people are considering the impact that their actions, along with the actions of all humans collectively, have on the planet.

When future historians review the accomplishments of Gen Z, they’ll likely note how they transformed this concern for the environment into action. I know this because as an entrepreneurship educator, I spent my days with Gen Z students who are developing solutions to problems in their community with the environment in mind.

Students enrolled in entrepreneurship education programs in high schools, like the one I taught at the Academies of Loudoun, are asked not only to create a solution to a problem but to try to find a way to make that solution sustainable. For them, sustainability means much more than traditional, business-school notions of financial viability: establishing that a problem exists that a solution addresses, that there is a customer for that solution and that the solution can be delivered cost-effectively at scale. It means ensuring that their solution has a net positive impact on the environment, their community, and society and is financially sustainable to boot.

Every day, students in entrepreneurship programs, such as Uncharted Learning’s IncubatorEDU program are creating products and developing ideas for services that offer solutions to the problems they identify. And, they’re also showing adults that these solutions can be both “profitable” and good for the planet.

To see this in action, one needs to look no further than the winner of this year’s Uncharted Learning’s INCubatoredu National Pitch competition in July: FYDER Filament. The company, founded in 2020 by four high school students in Alamo Height, Texas, near San Antonio, operates under the decidedly Gen Z principle that “technological innovation and environmental consciousness should go hand in hand.” FYDER includes on its website a quote from Ernest Hemingway: “The Earth is a fine place and worth fighting for.”

Like all of INCubatoredu’s students, the Alamo Heights team looked for an innovative solution to a problem in their community. Jamie Mayes, a team member, and now FYDER’s CEO was working at her father’s factory, which makes oat-based breakfast foods when she learned how he struggled to dispose of the industrial-size plastic bags – imagine plastic bags the size of your house – used to transport ingredients in economically and ecologically friendly ways. Mayes and her teammates decided to solve the problem by turning the bulk plastic packing sacks into 3D printing filament for industrial, educational, and personal uses. Manufacturers, which lack the time and resources to recycle them, willingly hand over the plastic bags to FYDER, which keeps a material that doesn’t degrade out of landfills. FYDER then turns the free materials into spools of filament, which they sell for a profit.

When future historians review the accomplishments of Gen Z, they’ll likely note how they transformed this concern for the environment into action.

Laura Boyd Smidt

FYDER’s business model is a textbook example of the marriage between environmental and financial sustainability. And that has been a trend among INCubatoredu teams that have received seed money through the pitch competition. Green Dirt, an Illinois-based team that won the 2017 competition, converted food waste from local restaurants into compost that was bagged and sold at local nurseries and garden centers. A finalist in 2020, the LEAF team – also from Alamo Heights – created the first fully biodegradable shooting pigeon. The Eco Pigeon has the same qualities as traditional clay pigeon targets when they’re in the air, but is safer for animals and the environment because they’re made of natural materials that dissolve into the ground.

And in 2018, a team that I coached in my former role with Loudoun County Public Schools won $10,000 in the national pitch competition for Grow Greenly, a self-fertilizing pot for plants that also was biodegradable. The four young women who created Grow Greenly, all students in my INCubatoredu course at the Academy of Engineering and Technology, researched and tested containers made from biosolid materials — leaf-based compost, water, cornstarch and locally sourced water pellets that act as a natural fertilizer.

HS team for Sustainability with check
INCubatoredu program national pitch competition winners

The startup faced numerous setbacks, including an early version where the containers broke apart during transportation tests. Rather than let these failures derail their plans, the members of Grow Greenly became even more determined to find the right balance between organic materials and overall stability. There was too much at stake — both for the team and for the planet — for them to settle for anything less.

The desire to help the planet extends beyond those teams that are developing solutions specifically designed to address environmental challenges. Indeed, the question “how do we ensure our solution has a net positive impact on the planet?” is one that most of the teams in these programs – upwards of 75% of the teams I worked with –  try to answer through their design process. For them sustainable design isn’t a “nice to have feature,” and that’s a good thing and it’s why entrepreneurship programs that empower students to develop sustainable solutions should be applauded and encouraged.

There are countless other examples of student INCubatoredu teams coming up with similarly innovative solutions that blend entrepreneurship with environmental sustainability. It points to a rising generation of entrepreneurs motivated to make the world a better place — and who want to show the rest of us that good business can also be good for the planet.

Laura Boyd Smidt is a recently retired entrepreneurship teacher at the Academies of Loudoun in Loudoun, Virginia, and currently is a Program Specialist at the entrepreneurship education non-profit, Uncharted Learning.

Green School Infuses Nature-Based Learning For Sustainable Education

After years of homeschooling, John and Cynthia Hardy wanted their daughters to attend a school in which they believed. After reading Alan Wagstaff’s Three Springs and watching Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, they were compelled to take action and opened up their first holistic and private learning community focused on sustainability in Bali in 2008. Aptly called Green School, they have also opened up in New Zealand last February and are opening up in South Africa this month. Additionally, they have a future site opening in Tulum, according to Chris Edwards, Head of Curriculum at Green School International.

However, according to Edwards, their original mission remains the same. He describes Green School as a firmly purpose-driven and globally influenced school that welcomes families from every corner of the world who want to embrace a new way of life that is more in harmony with nature.

“Our parents and communities want to inspire a lifelong love of learning in their children and understand that while their own schooling may have helped them succeed in today’s world, that their children will need a different approach in order to succeed in the world of tomorrow,” said Edwards.

Although each campus is unique in many ways, Edwards said that each values the concept of ‘local to global’ as part of a larger mission. This focuses on developing a new, innovative learning model that relates to the ever-changing real world.

“This is challenging,” said Edwards. “It takes unusual levels of commitment, ingenuity, and ability to work outside of the established norms and protocols of public institutions.”

According to Edwards, the way they empower learners to take on the challenges of today’s world is not by overwhelming them with the daunting realities of global climate change all at once. Instead, Edwards said that Green School demonstrates to learners small examples of how things can improve in their own sphere of influence and then empowering them to take solution-oriented action.

“Local to global also means really plugging into and understanding the local culture and community of which you are a part,” said Edwards. “Each Green School campus pays homage to its local heritage – teaching the traditions and celebrating the festivals of the local Balinese, or sharing Maori culture and food in New Zealand, or growing and preparing local ingredients and teaching students English and Afrikaans in South Africa.”

The Green School uses the term ‘nature-based learning’ as a foundation of their approach. Edwards said that it’s very challenging to compare any type of online learning in any meaningful way to what is done at Green School.

“You use two senses online,” said Edwards. “However, one uses five senses every second of every day at Green School because we incorporate nature in every lesson.”

Edwards works to make this contrast come alive as he shares specific examples of learners’ experiences at Green School. He recalls seeing a couple of one and two-year students measuring plots for pumpkin planting. They’d been asked to devise a plot and work out how many pumpkins they could plant. They were expected to use their math skills, demonstrate what they learned in biology, and get their hands dirty as well.

“It was amazing to observe their learning from the entire process from planting to harvesting,” said Edwards. “For me, it’s the best encapsulation of what we’re about.”

Edwards said that he’s seeing, on a daily basis, research-based educational practices working in real-time with their learners that are truly transformational.

“As a teacher, I can cite countless poems advocating the value of nature, but contrast that with watching students from around the world interact with and work in nature,” he said. “You suddenly realize that nature-based education holds up and it holds up across pedagogies, learners, and place.”

Edwards explains Green School’s focus on sustainability with an acronym they use known as R.E.A.L.: where the R represents Relational learning between students and their teachers, peers, and their community; the E stands for Experiential and Evolving, representing the co-creative and hands-on nature of education; the A stands for Authentic and how they apply traditional topics of study to real-world circumstances; and finally, the L represents the focus on Local-to-global, teaching students that they can enact their values meaningfully at both the local level and in larger ways across the globe.

“We go beyond ‘green studies’ or environmental studies,” said Edwards. “Each of these elements is taught in a way that is determined based on the developmental age of our students.”

Green School works to model sustainability every day through the projects that their learners produce. For example, learners at the Bali school are involved in the Innovation Hub – where students take real action through design and rapid prototyping of sustainable products. Other examples include sisters who launched their own NGO called Bye Bye Plastic Bags, developing a BioBus to help Bali move to a zero-waste future, or even saving frogs at a local pond called Bamboo To The Rescue. Many more can be found on their Green School Bali YouTube Channel that highlights student “Green Stone” projects – senior projects where each student chooses and presents on their own changemaker journey.

Ultimately, Edwards said Green School is about educating changemakers for a more sustainable world. Green School graduates have been admitted to universities in 18 different countries, traveled the world, and pursued every type of career imaginable. And now with the pandemic, Edwards hopes the world continues to closely examine how to re-imagine our approach to K-12 education.

“We are part of a movement that is joyful and where we help equip students with the skills to address the biggest issues of our time,” said Edwards.  “There has never been a more critical time in terms of our educational institutions in a way that helps preserve our world for the enjoyment of generations to come.”

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Growing an Army of Green Schools for Good

By Tom Vander Ark and Victoria Bergsagel

This post originally ran in Green Schools Catalyst Quarterly

Denpasar is a dense urban area on the south coast of Bali, where most of the four million inhabitants live on the 90-mile long Indonesian island. If you hop on a scooter and head north toward the mountains, about halfway to Ubud (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) and a kilometer off a narrow main street in the small village of Sibang Kaja, you will find Green School Bali (featured picture), a nonprofit independent international preK-12 school whose goal is to be the best model of sustainability education in the world.

Following a 2006 exit from the jewelry business, John and Cynthia Hardy conceived of a new kind of school. The Green School opened in 2008 with three rules: be local; let your environment be your guide; and envisage how your actions will affect your grandchildren. The holistic, open air, learner-centered school serves about 400 “green leaders” in preschool through high school.

The Green School may be the best model of sustainability education in the world, but this frequently visited off-the-grid bamboo school that relies on solar and hydro power is just one of ten examples of green schools growing green kids – young people with ecological awareness and design thinking skills.

Going Green

As new school administrators in the 1990s, we worked together in a fairly traditional Western Washington State school district. After five years, Tom left the district to help launch the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Victoria left for a brain research institute. Both of us had an opportunity to begin visiting hundreds of schools and studying brain-focused design, and we have worked together to support the development of over 1,000 new high schools in the last decade.

It was not really until the last decade or so that we came to more fully appreciate the importance of green schools. We had always followed the research and believed in the importance of good light, sound, and air quality, but it was the students themselves who took us to the next level.

We have visited thousands of schools, but the ten we highlight in this article (all visited recently) stand out on three criteria – energy efficient buildings, healthy environments and experiences that prepare students to take up stewardship of the planet.

California Dreamin’

The High Tech High campus in San Diego (@HighTechHigh) might be one of the most famous and visited secondary schools in the world. Housed in refurbished Navy buildings, High Tech High and its feeder elementary and middle schools use the city as the text for learning. Students throughout the network are involved in environmental education including students at Explorer Elementary, who publish books about local wildlife.

If you hop in your hard-to-find electric convertible and head north on I-15 you will soon be in San Diego in Poway Unified School District. The newest (and 39th) school in the district is Design39Campus (@Design39campus), an innovative preK-8 human-centered, design-focused elementary school. On a recent visit, we witnessed a multi-age classroom where students were addressing a big guiding question: “How might we define ourselves in the world in which we live?” Students in the LEED-certified building learn in a variety of large flexible spaces all filled with natural light and many with mountain vistas.

After an ocean-view lunch in Santa Monica, you can take a leisurely drive through scenic Malibu Canyon where you could visit the MUSE School (@MUSESchoolCA), a private southern California K-12 school where students participate in a rich seed-to-table program and take part in outdoor education.

In fact, the Green Restaurant Association named the MUSE school kitchen the greenest restaurant in the world. Their elementary campus is zero energy, near-zero waste, and boasts of solar sunflowers designed by movie director James Cameron. These operate with a tracking technology that allows each panel to move throughout the day and follow the course of the sun, thus harvesting more energy than traditional static panels.

Capital Ideas

Between the National Cathedral and American University in northwest Washington, D.C, is Horace Mann Elementary (@HoraceMannDC), a remarkable student-centered and personalized learning environment that serves a diverse student body in multiple-use spaces promoting efficiency and connection.  Students explore their local watersheds and the gardens on the grounds and roof support a teaching kitchen. A recent red brick addition complements a century old colonial building. The renovation and addition are the best example we have seen of shared values infused into both pedagogy and facility.

Five miles west, in Arlington, Virginia, is Discovery Elementary (@DiscoveryAPS), the largest net zero elementary school in the country. A 98,000-square foot building integrated into a residential community, the school’s entire solar array resides on its roof. With the goal of helping students develop the skills necessary for long-term stewardship of their world, a building dashboard system is accessible on any device in the school.

Place-Based Education

“A little bridge crossing a stream with a pool at the back of it and a willow hanging over the pool; that place would be said to have genius loci,” explained David Whyte. “But a more sophisticated understanding would [be that] it’s this weather front of all of these qualities that meet in that place. So I think it’s a very merciful thing to think of human beings in the same way — that is, your genius is just the way everything has met in you.”

Place-based education (PBE) is an approach to learning that takes advantage of geography to create authentic, meaningful, and engaging personalized learning for students.  More specifically, PBE is defined as an immersive learning experience that “places students in local heritage, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences, and uses these as a foundation for the study of language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and other subjects across the curriculum.”

The faculty of the Teton Science Schools in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (@TetonScience), are the spiritual gurus of the place-based movement. The 50-year-old nonprofit organization runs seven programs on five campuses, from preschool to graduate school. The five components of their approach include connection and relevance, partnerships and permeability, inquiry and design, student-centered, and interdisciplinary.

place-based education Teton Science SchoolNate McClennen, Vice President for Education and Innovation, said, “Instead of asking students to wait for twenty years to really understand the ‘why’ behind school, students should spend twenty years as integral and participatory members of learning communities. Imagine a world with place-based education for every child–connecting learning locally, regionally, and ultimately, globally. With multiple opportunities to interact with professionals, design solutions to real challenges, and skills to understand the world through multiple lenses, these students are the citizens the world needs for tomorrow.”

One of the best examples of leveraging community assets is Tacoma’s Science and Math Institute (SAMI) located within the second-largest city park in the nation (702 acres) which includes the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, rose gardens, an extensive tidal shoreline, old growth forest, and lots of trails. SAMI offers a robust environmental education program.  Students spend much of their school day out-of-doors doing field research and conduct internships in the zoo.  This fall, they will move into and share a new school building with the zoo and aquarium.

An hour north in Seattle is the Bertchi School. The private elementary school’s urban campus has a green Living Science Building, co-designed with students and staff, with an indoor river, bamboo fountain, and greenhouse. It was one of the first projects in the world to pursue the Living Building Challenge v2.0 criteria and the first to achieve it. From solar power to water collection to waste treatment, all sustainable features are visible for students to learn ecological concepts valuable for future generations.

A half hour ferry ride across the Puget Sound is IslandWood (@IslandWood) on Bainbridge Island, Washington. The 250-acre outdoor learning laboratory “invites children and adults to discover a new way of seeing nature, themselves, and one another.” IslandWood graduate programs teach place-based education practices.

10 Trends Making Schools Greener

Because we are committed to helping teacher teams invent the future of learning, we track trends in learning, the economy, and society as we visit schools around the world. When we put our trips and trends together, we see ten drivers making green schools and green kids more common.

1. LEED and the like. Since its inception by the U.S. Green Building Council in the mid-1990s, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program has evolved into a comprehensive system of interrelated standards ranging from design and construction to the maintenance and operation of buildings with 2.2 million square feet being certified every day.

Soon thereafter, several nonprofit organizations were formed with a similar mission and focused specifically on schools. The Collaborative for High-Performance Schools (CHPS), which was founded in 1999 as a collaboration of California’s major utilities to address energy efficiency, quickly expanded nationally to address all aspects of school design, construction, and operation. Several other states and municipalities also joined in. For instance, any state-funded school construction in Washington State now requires school districts to self-certify. (They can either incur the costs of pursuing LEED certification or use the Washington Sustainable Schools Protocol to self-certify.)

LEED-like certification is now a common design specification in education encouraging schools to be energy, water, and material efficient; well-lit; thermally comfortable; acoustically sound; safe; and healthy. The Architecture 2030 challenge is working toward all new buildings, developments, and major renovations across the globe being carbon-neutral by 2030. The International Well Building Institute, launched in 2014, provides a means by which buildings can be certified around seven concepts of health and well-being (air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind.) The U.S. Department of Education has also gotten into the act with its Green Ribbon Schools program. Its aim is to inspire schools to reduce environmental impact and costs; improve the health and wellness of schools, students, and staff; and provide environmental education.

2. Living Building Challenge. Launched in 2006 by the Cascadia Green Building Council (a chapter of both the U.S. Green Building Council and Canada Green Building Council), the Living Building Challenge is even more rigorous than LEED. Based on seven performance areas (place, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity, and beauty) certification is based on actual, rather than modeled or anticipated, performance. Administered by the International Living Future Institute, projects must be operational for at least 12 consecutive months prior to evaluation. Given the rigorous nature of the Living Building Challenge, only a few certified projects exist to date. Like LEED, the Challenge is creating aligned new building design and broader general public interest in the topic of green buildings.

3. Renewables. Solar and other renewable energy sources have become competitive with traditional sources and, as a result, are frequently incorporated into school building projects. Generated from natural resources—such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, and geothermal heat—renewable energy technologies range from solar power, wind power, hydroelectricity/micro hydro, biomass, and biofuels for transportation.

4. Food. The advocacy and cooking of Alice Waters, Ann Cooper, and Jamie Oliver have changed the way America thinks about school lunch. Food is getting fresher, more local, and more nutritious. Kitchens and gardens are becoming classrooms.

We have seen great examples of hydroponic gardening in Santa Ana and in downtown San Diego at e3 Civic High. The MUSE School’s plant-based snack and lunch program makes it one of the only schools in the world to go vegan to save the planet.  Students are even asked to weigh their food waste to see the impact of their choices on the world.

FirstLine Schools leads Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, which serves thousands of students, their families, and school communities through nearly 4,000 joyful, hands-on kitchen and garden classes and special food and nutrition education events.

5. Project-based learning. Renewed interest in project-based learning is making schools greener because students take on real world challenges and often (as discussed in #7) take on local issues. Thousands of schools use the Buck Institute for Education’s Gold Standard to frame project-based learning. The 200 schools in the New Tech Network use integrated project-based learning to tackle real challenges with local connections. The Samueli Academy in Santa Ana engages diverse students in transformative learning on a spectacular campus.

Like Digital Promise, we advocate using the #GlobalGoals to frame projects. Growing out of the United Nations General Assembly’s Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, this campaign resulted in 17 Global Goals that provide a roadmap for a better future. Goals include zero hunger, affordable and clean energy, life on earth, life in the oceans, and sustainable cities.

6. Design, STEM, & Maker. Innovative new schools including One Stone in Boise, Design Tech High in the Bay Area, Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Development, and SPARK Schools in South Africa incorporate design thinking into every subject. These explorations invariably lead to questions of impact and sustainability.

Growing job demand in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) clusters make it a trending topic in schools. We identified a dozen STEM entry points and many point to sustainability and other trends on this list. For example, Harmony Public Schools is a blended STEM-focused network of schools in Texas. Upper division students engage in self-directed projects. Many are focused on the environment including hydroponics, solar cars, and weather balloons.

The maker movement is sweeping America—kids young and old are making stuff. “Maker activities do not inherently make schools greener, but have the potential to if done mindfully,” said Lindsey Own, maker coordinator at The Evergreen School (see her maker blog series). “Green maker is not only better for the environment, but also makes maker education more accessible by significantly lowering materials costs,” said Own.

Lindsey and her school community recycle and salvage materials. Families have already gotten in the habit of saving material for the makerspace and donate everything from corks, bottle caps, and plastic Easter eggs to someone’s collection of fabric samples or someone else’s unused stash of tubing. Students always manage to find uses for all of the materials, teaching recycling and design thinking. Own applies the same philosophy to new materials, pushing students to use every bit.

7. Place-based education. PBE encourages a sense of place. It is an approach to learning that incorporates relevant learning, community connections, design thinking, and integrated project-based learning. With renewed interest in project-based learning (#5), PBE is surging. The growth of microschools (also an early green trend) is advancing PBE and environmental education.

8. Competency-based education (CBE). With the rise of personalized learning (the dominant meme in U.S. education today), schools are increasingly managing student progress by demonstrations of mastery. National initiatives like LRNG recognize that learning, and demonstrations of learning, can take place anywhere, anytime. With encouragement from the federal government, some states will fuel this fire with portable funding, making it possible for students to learn with several different providers in several locations. CBE requires large, flexible spaces rather than grade-based classrooms, and schools that convert from large to small spaces at different times of the day.

9. Transportation. Artificial intelligence is creeping into many aspects of education. One of the most significant changes will be in more flexible and affordable student transportation powered by fleets of self-driving buses and vans—some dedicated, some on demand.  High schools will start later and teenagers will easily access work and community-based learning experiences.

Urban transportation hubs will frequently house green microschools which will make extensive use of affordable and safe travel-based learning.

School systems are increasingly making use of biofuel to move their buses and district vehicles. San Diego Unified utilizes reused cooking oil from area restaurants to fuel hundreds of its buses and teaches the use of this technology at San Diego High School of Science and Technology (Scitech).

10. Community facilities. Gary Comer College Prep is a high school on Chicago’s South Side that meets in two green buildings developed by the Comer Family Foundation. After school, one of the buildings converts into a Youth Center. The campus includes adjacent and rooftop gardens.

The sixth and seventh floor of the new downtown San Diego Library are devoted to e3 Civic High. The School of the Arts (SOTA) shares space in a variety of historic buildings throughout downtown Tacoma (and is the sister school to SAMI, discussed above).

Most big districts exhibit some version of a portfolio strategy with multiple operators. In a few cities, charters and districts collaborate on facilities. As the trends above mature, it is very likely that learning will happen in more community locations. In some places, education and community leaders will collaborate on facilities resulting in a super-efficient affiliation of community spaces used to support lifelong learning.

The combination of place-based (learning in community) and competency-based (anytime, anywhere demonstrated mastery) education, flexible autonomous transportation, and a portfolio of community facilities will make learning greener and more economical. Space requirements per pupil in dedicated school facilities will decline and utilization rates of green public spaces will rise.


It is natural for students to want to explore, protect, and improve the world around them. They learn best through authentic experiences and are motivated by opportunities to solve real-world problems. Green, healthy, and sustainable schools –especially those who make their values explicit—teach social responsibility and arm students for action.

The ten trends we have identified are preparing an army of ecologically-minded, design-focused, impact-oriented youth that may just fix the mess we have made.

For more, see:

This post is a part of Green Schools campaign. The climate crisis is the most complex challenge mankind has ever faced. It will require collaboration, shared truth and innovation at a scale that has yet to be realized. Through blogs, conversations and events we will focus on what to teach, how to teach it and how to create a climate positive school community so that our upcoming generations know what they are up against and have a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities ahead. You can engage with this ongoing campaign using #GreenSchools. 

This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.