As in many schools, 8th grade students at Sidwell Friends School take an Environmental Science course. The goal of the course is for students to learn the biological, physical, and ecological concepts required to understand the significance of four environmental issues (biodiversity loss, global climate change, water stress, and human population growth). The students also examine alternative solutions for resolving and/or preventing these issues, both individually and collectively. At the conclusion of the course, students write a personal code of environmental ethics based upon their understandings of the issues, and place it in a manila envelope to be reopened when they are graduating seniors.
Significantly aiding in the teaching-learning process of this course is the Sidwell Friends Middle School building. In September 2006, our Middle School faculty and students returned to a newly renovated building with an addition that almost doubled the size of the original 50-year-old building. The new building became the first K-12 building in the world to receive LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum rating from the U. S. Green Building Council, and the first LEED Platinum building of any type in the District of Columbia. The building was designed and constructed to be as environmentally progressive as possible, and includes the following features:
- An energy efficient and passive solar design that includes: lights that are controlled by occupancy sensors; photocells that automatically adjust the level of artificial lighting according to the amount of daylight available; a roof that exceeds the thermal property requirements of standard building design by 155% and walls that exceed the same requirements by a factor of three; windows that are twice as insulating as energy standard properties; a central air system which takes advantage of an “economizer” operation to eliminate mechanical cooling by bringing in fresh air when outside air temperatures are appropriate; and solar shades that have been erected in key solar orientations
- A green roof which reduces the “urban heat island effect” preventing the building from heating up and reducing demand for air conditioning
- A constructed wetland which treats waste water through a natural vegetative process without having to go to a municipal sewage plant.
The Environmental Science course begins by ensuring that students gain a thorough understanding of the Middle School green features- those that conserve energy, eliminate storm water runoff, reduce water pollution, use renewable and recycled materials, and provide both a healthy environment inside the building, and a wildlife-friendly natural habitat outside. The remainder of the course is designed to provide clarity regarding the School’s decision to finance and construct the Middle School as a “living habitat” in which students could personally experience the interdependent systems necessary to operate a built space in an environmentally sensitive and sustainable way.
Our Middle School facility provides an inspiring forum for our students to explore and debate the complex scientific, economic, ecological, and political realities that must be balanced in order for a society to meet its full range of needs for the present without undermining the ability of future generations to do the same. This broad conception of sustainability, with its implicit compassion and concern for the well-being of all living things, resonates deeply with core Quaker values of simplicity of living, service to others, and environmental stewardship. We believe the introduction of our LEED Platinum Middle School, and the subsequent attention to wise environmental practices in the operations and facilities throughout the school, have laid the foundation for a school-wide commitment to the principles of sustainability and global interdependence.
The Middle School building and the school’s underlying values have inspired a variety of curricular and co-curricular activities. Presented below are some examples of innovative activities that Sidwell teachers have used to engage students in environmental education, while also preparing them to be “green carriers” of the future. Working with the manager of the school web site, students wrote and recorded an on-line tour of the school’s platinum-rated building, with the hope that this would make it easier for others to learn about green architecture, and perhaps inspire some to construct their own green building. To date, over 26,000 people have visited the site. Students also designed the art work and accompanying text for a host of beautiful signs, placed in designated areas of the building, which interpret its many green features for visitors. Roughly a third of the 8th grade students are trained every year as building tour guides. These students are then able to competently explain the School’s green elements, from the rooftop gardens, solar chimneys, and photovoltaic systems, to the constructed wetlands and bio-pond; and, of course, to the labs, classrooms and art facilities in between. Over 10,000 students, architects, and environmentally-concerned citizens have taken the guided tours of our school facility.
Sidwell Friends had three mutually supported objectives in designing the Middle School building: to create an aesthetically beautiful structure; to construct an environmentally high-performing building; and to provide a wonderful space for exceptional teaching and learning. We feel our Middle School has successfully achieved all three of these goals.