February 19, 2009

Green school offers lessons on sustainability

  • South Sound middle school integrates its building into the curriculum.
    DLR Group



    The design of Pioneer Middle School in DuPont was informed by the idea that the environment itself could play a role as an educational partner. A learning environment that embraced sustainable ideas could create global citizens of its users.

    Pioneer’s site is forested with Washington’s oldest grove of Garry oaks and their surrounding savannah. Preserving the trees was paramount, but they also provided inspiration for the building design. The library, for example, is a metaphor for a treehouse, with its articulation and wood cladding suspended above the student commons.

    DLR Group, the project designer, led six workshops with the school district and stakeholders to develop design goals. The project team also worked with educators to develop specific sustainability curricula and the means to make the school building an active participant in the educational experience.

    The exposed structural systems could be used to teach applied geometry, for instance, or the skylights could help teach the impact of sun angles and prisms. The building in these cases animates and connects these lessons directly to students’ everyday lives.

    Photos by Chris Roberts Photography
    Interactive screens at Pioneer Middle School track the building’s energy use. Students can compile data to understand how the building affects the environment.

    “Students seem to really appreciate and value the new school,” says Kristi Webster, the principal at Pioneer.

    “And as teachers have become familiar with the building, they are using building features and spaces as an integral part of their lessons, which is great to see. What’s been especially fun is that some instructors are even using the building in ways we didn’t necessarily intend, such as the PE instructors who are using it in unexpected ways as a fitness tool.”

    Sustainable measures

    Paramount then was creating a built environment that would be a leading example of sustainable construction and design. Pioneer Middle School incorporates sustainable design measures at every level, including:

    • a comprehensive energy management control system;

    • efficient daylighting through skylights, blinds, sunshades;

    • HVAC sensors at operable windows, and occupancy sensors in the lighting

    • use of local, recycled and rapidly renewable materials;

    • low-emitting materials and ventilation that exceeds code requirement;

    • planting and shading to reduce the heat-island effect;

    • reduced outdoor water use with controlled-drip irrigation and drought-tolerant plants; and

    • rain garden and infiltration ponds.

    Also, the school was awarded a $350,000 grant by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction for being a volunteer project for the state Sustainable Schools Protocol. This allowed the district to incorporate a much higher level of sustainable design elements.

    Visible features

    In keeping with the goal to let the building itself serve as a learning tool, the design team took every opportunity to make sustainable features visible to users. One way was through the use of educational signage throughout the school.

    The signage has many uses, such as:

    • indicating elements of sound such as the effects of absorption and reverberations within the music room;

    • illustrating where local resources used in the building were found, and the importance of their utilization;

    • demonstrating the importance of natural light as a natural resource; and

    • discussing recycling, reuse and the organic processes of decomposition.

    Signage content may be changed over time by the students and educators, allowing flexibility. For example, an exhibit in the music room that focuses on the science of sound on the human ear could switch to an exhibit on the mathematics of acoustics or the art of a space’s impacts on music quality.

    Pioneer also provides outdoor learning opportunities. Aspen Design Group created an edible garden and a “world history herb garden” for science and foods-lab instructors to use.

    The herb garden is divided into sections representing different eras and the herbs that would have been prevalent during that era. The Renaissance and Age of Discovery herbs include chives and parsley, while the Eastern Asia and Pacific garden includes bronze fennel and ginseng.

    Digital screens track the building’s energy use. Students can compare current energy use data with past history and standard school energy use to understand how the design of their school impacts the environment.

    “A colleague and I have discussed teaching graphing by joining a nationwide rain collection and temperature data collection effort based in Colorado,” says Laura Lowe, a teacher at Pioneer.

    “We could put rain gauges in the gardens to be a part of their data collection and have students create graphs both by hand and electronically over the course of the year looking for patterns. This seems like a great opportunity to take advantage of both the school’s technology and outdoor environments. “

    An opportunity

    With a carefully crafted, integrated curriculum the school also becomes an instigator of positive change.

    When the mission of ecological stewardship is reinforced hourly, the program promotes environmental advocacy by its users. Additionally, when these buildings are open to and used by the community, this conscientiousness spreads through the citizenry, increasing knowledge and awareness.

    Today’s students are our greatest opportunity to create a generation of sustainable citizens. In classes that are geared toward demonstrating the effects of daily life on the environment and vice-versa, students understand the direct impact their actions have on the world around them.

    Students will be our best teachers — their spheres of influence are broad. They will share what they’ve learned with their current families, with their peers, with their communities and with the families they create — our future generations.

    Craig Mason is a principal and Erin Reichman is a senior associate at DLR Group, an interdisciplinary design firm with offices nationwide.

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