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Green Schools Curriculum Centers STEM Learning on Sustainability

Project 2061, a long-term AAAS initiative to increase literacy in science, mathematics, and technology, has released an outline for its Green Schools Energy Curriculum, which utilizes real-time data on energy generation and consumption from green school buildings to teach middle school students the science of energy.

The curriculum outline, developed with a two-year National Science Foundation planning grant to explore the transformation of STEM learning, brings together all elements of STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—around a theme of environmental stewardship.

The project was developed by a multidisciplinary team made up of AAAS staff members as well as experts in education, educational technology, cognition, and green design.

“We used the science of energy as the starting point,” said George DeBoer, deputy director of Project 2061 and the grant’s lead investigator. The team then worked to integrate math, technology, and engineering into the same curriculum—a challenge, DeBoer said, as schools often teach these subjects separately, or not at all.

But the project team sought to connect STEM learning objectives and motivate middle school students in an innovative way.

“Having something so grounded in kids’ everyday lives—the very building that they’re going to school in—might be a way to engage them with these contexts,” said Mary Koppal, communications director of Project 2061.

The course is aligned to the performance expectations from Next Generation Science Standards. It also draws from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Literacy: Essential Principles and Fundamental Concepts for Energy Education to identify learning goals.

The five-unit curriculum begins with two units to help sixth grade  through eighth grade students understand energy: What is it, where does it come from, how do we use it and why, and what kinds of costs and consequences are associated with our energy use? The third and fourth units address how energy is used in schools, with one unit on natural and artificial light and another on heating and cooling. The final unit puts into practice everything that students have learned, as they explore ideas for re-designing and maintaining school buildings to use less energy—and minimize the impact on the environment.

At the heart of the curriculum outline is the use of real-time data about energy use. Students would have access to data about their schools’ energy use for tracking and analysis—real-life examples of classroom concepts like energy thermal transfer. Online access to energy data would facilitate sharing of information between schools, allowing students to compare their energy use to that of other schools and more broadly share ideas for energy conservation.

The curriculum outline encourages the adoption of sustainable practices such as reducing wasteful energy use, behaviors that Project 2061 envisions that students can bring home. While some green efforts in schools set out to change students’ behaviors, students conserving electricity by turning off unused lights, for instance, is a positive consequence rather than the driving force of the Green Schools Energy Curriculum. 

“The science content was the most important thing,” DeBoer said.

The Growth of Green Schools

The release of the Green Schools Energy Curriculum outline comes at a time of increasing interest in green schools. A 2010 report from the U.S. Green Building Council and others found that the education sector is the fastest growing market for green buildings. The U.S. Department of Education has begun identifying schools, districts, and higher education institutions for making green strides. Its Green Ribbon Schools program recognizes schools that reduce environmental impacts and costs, improve the health and wellness of students and staff, and provide environmental education.

Project 2061 surveyed principals from Green Ribbon Schools to learn more about their use of energy data—one of many times Project 2061 involved feedback from educators and administrators in the development of the curriculum outline.

In the early stages of the project, small groups of teachers served as “sounding boards” for the team, Koppal said. Later, a number of surveys gathered information from science educators. Surveys found that respondents were receptive to the idea of a STEM curriculum centered on green schools, and teachers agreed that the curriculum would be consistent with standards and appealing to students—input that helped the project team develop the outline’s first draft.

A 2015 implementation survey asked educators whether schools have the resources, in terms of both staff and technology, to successfully integrate the Green Schools Energy Curriculum into their classrooms. The surveys found some challenges to implementation, calling for policies and infrastructure that would make energy usage data easily accessible for students’ learning as well as for broader sharing with other schools.

The next step, DeBoer said, will be for curriculum developers and individual teachers take the outline’s content to develop the resources and activities needed to meet the learning goals described there. How far each school will be able to pursue the vision of the curriculum will depend on the human and physical resources they have available to them.

“The important thing is that as many schools as possible do something to help their students appreciate the need for energy conservation and the science behind it,” DeBoer said.