By. Dana Dwinell-Yardley, Communications and Admin Coordinator, Vermont Energy Education Program
Students across Vermont are not just learning about the global effects of climate change. They are taking that learning to the next step: action on the local level.
These students are leading school projects to install new energy-efficient lighting, weigh and track school waste, measure insulation, educate parents about the negative effects of idling, and create community public service announcements on saving energy. One school reduced its electricity bill by a remarkable 21% through conservation measures alone.
These students — along with their climate-conscious teachers — are participating in the Green School Energy Challenge, a program of the Vermont Energy Education Program (VEEP) that focuses on reducing energy use as a way to empower students, save money, and address climate change. More than 40 Vermont schools have taken the challenge since it began in 2011.
The challenge was recently redesigned to have a greater focus on professional development, with VEEP educators supporting teachers to lead their young climate activists in making real change over the school year. While VEEP’s focus is on teacher support, the action projects are primarily developed and led by students.
“It’s so easy for students to not feel like they have control over a lot of things,” said VEEP educator Mariah Keagy. “[The challenge] is a sweet spot where they actually get to exercise the power they have.”
“Allowing students to choose what they want to work on means that they’re really invested in it,” said Amy Kimball, a Montpelier middle school teacher who has led her students in the challenge for four years.
Seventh graders at Barre Town Middle Elementary School chose lighting efficiency as their area of focus this past year. Students collected data on how many light bulbs were in the school, how many watts they used, and how long they stayed lit each day to find the biggest energy hogs. Then students brainstormed solutions with the help of Andy Shapiro, VEEP’s director of engineering, settling on lighting sensors as the best strategy to reduce use. The next step: students called local contractors for quotes to get sensors installed.
“They’re doing so much learning about why it’s important, but also the ways to go about a solution,” said VEEP educator Erin Malloy, who worked with Barre Town on the lighting project. “Just making a phone call to a business is a new thing.”
The project hit a roadblock when school administration said no to sensors, citing safety concerns around lights being off for part of the day.
“In the face of these challenges, the students persevered,” wrote Barre Town teacher Krista Battles, “quickly changing focus to work toward a positive solution.” Students opted to replace over 100 fluorescent fixtures in the hallways with 68 LED fixtures, using a combination of grant funding and school funding. The new LEDs will reduce the school’s carbon output by 30 pounds, and lower energy bills by $900 a year.
Navigating unexpected roadblocks is another real-world skill that the challenge provides for students.
“It gives them the long-term perspective,” said Mariah Keagy. “Dealing with projects where challenges seem insurmountable is very real!”
Students and teachers have responded to many obstacles with creative problem-solving. The administration at Randolph High School would not allow students to collect food waste for a local technical college’s digester, so students instead went out into the community and made connections between the college and local businesses who wanted to start composting. At Harwood Union Middle School, a campaign to remove energy-sucking vending machines ran into contract issues with the distributor, and the machines had to stay. Students had to reframe the campaign as a long-term win for awareness: nobody wanted to use the machines any more, which meant they were likely to be removed eventually.
Funding can also be an obstacle, especially in small, rural schools. Coventry Village School is a K-12 school in northern Vermont with a total enrollment of 137. Nearly two thirds of those students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Coventry’s 23 seventh and eighth graders, led by teacher Katrina Hardt, set a goal of reducing the school’s energy use by 10%. They studied energy and electricity, and borrowed equipment from VEEP to measure electrical use around their school.
With no money in the budget for major energy improvements, students set about lowering energy use through conservation alone. Using simple strategies like reducing over-lighting and unplugging appliances when not in use, Coventry’s middle schoolers blew past their original goal: the school has seen a 21% reduction in electricity use since taking the Green School Energy Challenge.
Using data to drive solutions and quantify success is a core value of the challenge. VEEP describes this as “academics-to-action” — you cannot know where your efforts will be most effective, or how effective they actually were, unless you can measure and understand what is going on.
Most Green School Energy Challenge projects start out with students gathering information. How many light bulbs are in this hallway? How much energy does it take to heat this classroom? How many parents are idling in the school parking lot? How much insulation is in the attic?
Students take the data they collect and use it to make a strong case for action to the rest of the community — the school administration, the facilities manager, the school board, parents, and even other students.
“When we support students with how to channel their voice, support it with numbers and data, that’s where they have power,” Mariah Keagy said. “If we prove that we can have savings, then there’s trust in the community.”
Woodstock Elementary School spent the past year gathering information about their waste generation. By student request, the custodial staff now weighs all the school’s trash, recycling, and compost on a large scale purchased with grant funding. The custodians enter the data on a shared Google spreadsheet, which students then analyze.
“We’ve been establishing a baseline of what’s average at our school this year,” said Woodstock teacher Marcia Gauvin. “We hope to leverage that to get grants.” Students discovered that paper towels make up a large part of the waste stream; Gauvin is planning to apply for a grant to install hand dryers instead.
Thermal energy is an area that is especially relevant in Vermont’s cold winters. The six high school students in South Royalton School’s STEM class measured how much energy was used to heat their classrooms and tested experimental designs for new insulating window curtains. The replacement curtains, installed by the students and paid for by grant funding, are 11 times more insulating than the previous ones, which means each classroom now takes 25% to 30% less energy to heat.
A group of students at Albany Community School also studied thermal energy, documenting icicles on the school and investigating insulation in the attic. “We have 8 centimeters of insulation, and we need 30 centimeters,” said Albany teacher Megan Jolly, who plans to focus on solutions to the roof issue next year.
The thermal energy group was just one of several fifth through eighth grade teams at Albany that each focused on a different area of energy conservation, including composting, idling, and electricity use. “We discovered a lot of problems,” said Jolly, “but we really created an environment for kids where they’re mindful of energy consumption, in all aspects.”
The teams took that understanding and shared it with the rest of the student body through brochures, posters, skits, and movies. “They became experts in their field,” said Jolly.
Telling your community what you have learned about energy use, climate change, and action is another key real-world skill. Seventh and eighth grade students at Main Street Middle School (MSMS) in Montpelier created advertising campaigns around sustainability topics, including developing a slogan, a meme, and a 60-second public service announcement. The student spots eventually played on local access television.
“The students learned a lot about how to get people to change behaviors,” said MSMS teacher Amy Kimball, who brought an advertising expert in to talk to her students about effective campaigns.
Kimball and her students also harnessed folks from the community for their second annual Green Expo, a half-day conference for the entire school. Students invited 14 local experts to present in 45-minute blocks on topics ranging from trash audits to bees, solar panels to invasive insects. The afternoon culminated in a celebration in the gymnasium, where the whole school community was invited to consider what they could do next to take action on energy use and climate change.
For students involved in VEEP’s Green School Energy Challenge, the cycle of data collection, analysis, action, and reflection allows them to see the change they are creating.
“It empowers kids,” said Keagy. “It’s not just that they feel like they’re making a difference, but they actually quantify it.”
“[The challenge] is a really positive thing for students because they can affect positive change in their community — whether it’s the school community or greater community,” said VEEP’s Erin Malloy. “It ripples out.”
About the Author
Dana Dwinell-Yardley has been the Vermont Energy Education Program’s communications and admin coordinator since 2014. She believes that telling stories is a vital part of building community and counteracting climate change. When she is not working, Dana can be found gardening in her backyard raised beds in Montpelier, Vermont.