By Mike Marsee
At Bryan Station Middle School, they’re raising fish to feed plants. At Royal Spring Middle School, the “Power Police” are on the prowl.
Those are among the things the schools have done to earn recognition as 2015 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools.
Bryan Station Middle (Fayette County) and Royal Spring Middle (Scott County) are among 81 schools, districts and postsecondary institutions nationwide to earn the Green Ribbon designation, which honors their promising efforts to reduce environmental impact and utility costs, promote better health, and ensure effective environmental education, including civics and green career pathways.
There were three Green Ribbon winners from Kentucky, including Western Kentucky University, one of nine colleges and universities honored by the U.S. Department of Education with the Postsecondary Sustainability Award, in the first year of that award category. The schools and universities will be honored in July at a ceremony in Washington.
Bryan Station principal Lester Diaz, a former science teacher who said he has been committed to “anything green” since he was named principal three years ago, said he hoped his school had done enough to earn a Green Ribbon award.
“I was hopeful,” Diaz said. “This is the top of the iceberg. All our kids are gaining a global perspective. They see what we’re doing at school, and they’re going to take that lesson with them.”
At Royal Spring, 6th-grade science teacher B.W. Thornton said his school has been leaning green since it opened nine years ago.
“Environmental education has been a big part of the curriculum here since the beginning,” Thornton said.
Royal Spring has reduced energy consumption by more than 30 percent from 2009 to 2013, and its water consumption has been cut by 13 percent.
The school also creates a culture that promotes physical health. Many teachers incorporate outdoor education opportunities through their classes. Extracurricular activities go beyond traditional sports teams to include Kickball Club, Hiking Club, Girls on the Run, Race for the Cure and the Energy and Environment Club. The environment, student and staff health, and an awareness of sustainability are embedded throughout the curriculum, and daily practices include a recycling program and tree-planting projects.
Bryan Station has reduced energy consumption by 40 percent and water consumption by 29 percent over the last 10 years.
Its students participate in a year-round wellness class, and are involved in the Alliance for a Healthier Generation Program. The Green Club maintains a vegetable garden and promotes environmental problem-solving initiatives such as the school’s anti-idling program.
Here is a closer look at some of the things each of Kentucky’s two Green Ribbon middle schools are doing:
Bryan Station Middle School
A field trip to a food chain organization last year that sparked students’ interest in both fish and vegetables led 6th-grade science teacher Thomas Reed to create an aquaponics system in his classroom that has produced food and provided a valuable teaching venue.
Aquaponics combines aquaculture (raising aquatic animals in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water). Excretions from the animals, which would accumulate and become toxic in a normal aquaculture system, provide nutrients for the plants when the water from the aquaculture system is fed into a hydroponic system.
“We started getting the parts together, and the kids got excited and got on board, and I started teaching a really detailed ecosystem on how to be green,” Reed said. “You tell me what better learning experience these kids could have in a science classroom: Doing simple little labs or doing lifelong learning projects?”
Reed’s aquaponics system started with a dozen or so fish, Thai basil seeds and some clay.
“We’ve been given out basil all year long. They grow so quickly,” he said.
Students feed the fish, monitor the system and have learned every facet of the process.
“I could pull a kid up, and he could tell you everything about it,” Reed said. “They’ve taken ownership of it.”
From there, students decided to reclaim a garden that had become overgrown, using sweat equity and donated mulch to grow beans, corn, peppers and sunflowers. They also asked Diaz on their own about starting a garden club.
“A lot of the kids never seemed to have eaten a freshly grown vegetable,” Reed said. “It does amazing things to see kids in an urban situation do this, and now they’re asking me for seeds to go home and plant.”
Reed said there are no better lessons for science teachers than those that show their kids how to practice sustainability.
“The main subject in science right now is keeping the earth green. I don’t see any better way to teach the kids than to see how to take care of the earth – and each other,” he said.
Diaz said a life skills class took on a cleanup project in which they collected about 30 pounds of garbage around the school campus, much of which had flowed in with storm water from the rest of the neighborhood.
“We talked about the damage things like cigarette butts do to storm water. That’s huge, and our kids recognize that now,” he said.
Classes have built a rain garden and planter boxes, a water bottle refill station has been installed that Diaz said has saved more than 8,000 water bottles since the start of the school year, and wellness has been introduced into the core curriculum by making physical education a daily requirement for all students.
“The only thing the school doesn’t have are wind turbines and solar panels,” Diaz said, adding that he hopes to have them soon.
Diaz said the school already has an incentive to save energy thanks to a district program that gives the school a percentage of every dollar saved on energy costs, and he said he’d like to install a digital display near the main entrance that shows instantly updated information on how much energy the school is producing.
Royal Spring Middle School
Students in the Energy and Environment Club, which Thornton co-sponsors along with fellow teacher Sarah White, are card-carrying members of the Power Police, and they won’t hesitate to use their powers to help their school use less energy.
Thornton said if those students get their work done early in class, and if they get their teacher’s permission, they can leave class to patrol the school, looking for places where energy is being wasted. If they find such a place, such as an empty classroom in which the lights have been left on, they switch off the lights and leave behind a door hanger as a reminder to the occupants to be more mindful of energy usage.
“One of the things the students really like is being able to get out of class to go on patrol,” Thornton said. “I think it’s almost instinctive for kids to catch the idea that conservation just makes sense, so they pick up the ball and run with it. They come up with a lot of creative ideas of things that can be done.”
Thornton said Royal Spring’s Green Ribbon application showcased “a high level of student involvement” in its green initiatives. For example, they were involved in an energy audit of the building in which they used scientific instruments to look for places where energy is being wasted, came up with ideas on how to correct those things and were in charge of monitoring how it was being carried out.
He said Royal Spring was built to be energy-efficient.
“If we have our wonderful, energy-efficient building and we sit here using it wastefully, it’s going to make us look bad. But we can look good if we’re showing that we’re using the building the way it’s supposed to be used,” he said.
Much is happening outside the building as well, as outdoor education has become a part of many classes.
“That is one of the pillars that the Department of Education was looking for, and that was one of the things that I asked for from my colleagues: Give me any examples of things you do outdoors,” Thornton said. “PE was pretty obvious, but in language arts class they go outdoors and write nature poems, and in social studies they did a unit on ancient Greece and had a Greek Olympics. In math class, the math teachers measure squares on the sidewalks, and the students will calculate the area of the square.”
Thornton said a creek running alongside the school’s football field is frequently used for outdoor activities, such as a unit on ecology.
“We have a creek, and we’re not afraid to use it,” he said. “Our creek is an outdoor classroom that we use. It’s a natural ecosystem, and we haven’t done lot to try to change it. We try to keep it natural so we can study it in its natural state.”
He said 6th-grade science classes have performed a water quality assessment on the creek, which flows into North Elkhorn Creek, and if they detect pollution they examine the surrounding areas to see where it might be coming from.
The school has also partnered with the Scott County Soil and Water Conservation District, which sponsors a conservation day every September and brings a dozen or so conservation scientists to the school to teach a “mini-unit.”
“It’s an opportunity for students to learn from the experts,” Thornton said.
The school also holds an annual after-school energy carnival, usually around Earth Day, that has become a popular event. Thornton said the carnival features a series of 10 different activities – all of them student-led – designed to educate students about energy consumption and conservation.
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