By. Molly Stoffregen, teacher at Northside Elementary in Chapel Hill, North Carolina


Locally sourced recycled materials. Rainwater cisterns. Sunshades. A garden roof. Daylight sensors. Air quality monitors. These are just a few examples of the many green features at Northside Elementary School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the state’s first LEED Platinum certified elementary school.  The school opened in August 2013 as the 11th elementary school in the Chapel Hill Carrboro City School System on the historic site of the district’s all African-American school during the time of school segregation.  The green features integrated into Northside’s building are important learning tools for teachers to use in their classrooms. The task faculty face is how to integrate the building into state and district mandated curriculum and expectations.


The three steps Northside faculty take to use the building as a teaching tool are to use static and active signage, learn about the building from the design/construction team, and integrate the features of the building into our state curriculum, particularly in the subject area of science.


Northside’s design includes an interactive dashboard that educates students and staff about the green features in the building and provides on-time data about energy usage, water usage, and gas usage.  The interactive dashboard is complemented by static signage placed throughout the building that educates students, staff, and visitors about specific green features.  Each color-coded static sign has the symbol of the green category that matches the dashboard and a brief description of the feature.


In addition to the active and static signage, the school’s original planning team collaborated with the architectural firm who designed and built Northside to learn about how the building works.  Steve Nally, the project manager for Moseley Architects, and John Nichols, the sustainability coordinator for Moseley Architects, shared an in-depth presentation with the faculty on the green features of the building and how to use them in the classroom. They returned the following year to educate new faculty and answer questions from returning faculty who had been working in the building for a year.  This collaboration established a deeper understanding for the faculty about the green features of the building.


The final step Northside faculty took to use the building as a teaching tool was to integrate the green features into teaching the state’s standards in science, social studies, and math.  A team of teachers, with support from Steve Nally and our district’s sustainability coordinator Dan Schnitzer, decided that each grade level would focus on one of the six categories covered by the green features:

  • Kindergarten: materials
  • First grade: sunlight
  • Second grade: air
  • Third grade: sun and nature
  • Fourth grade: water
  • Fifth grade: energy


The thinking behind this plan is for students to have been taught all of the green features of the building by the time they graduate from Northside as fifth graders.


To support faculty with integrating the green feature categories into these particular science units, presentations and building tours were planned to support the students’ learning of the science standards and apply their learning as it relates to the Northside building. To continue our collaboration with Moseley Architects, Steve Nally and John Nichols created presentations about the building to share with each grade level.  In addition to presenting to each grade level, a building tour that relates to the grade level standards was planned and implemented.  The building tours were planned to expose students to places in the building that were not necessarily considered instructional spaces; however, learning could and does take place in these spaces.


The kindergarten presentation focuses on the different materials used to build Northside and incorporates actual examples of the materials.  Students get to touch and smell the different types of wood used in the building as they talk about the wood doors built from sustainable forest products.  They get to handle bamboo straight from a local garden while learning about the floors in the gym.  They get to experience a bucket of sawdust while hearing about the particleboard that makes up their classroom cabinets. The kindergarten tour involves a scavenger hunt around the building with students looking for static signage that has the materials symbol. Once they find the signage, their teacher reads to them about the type of material used in the building and they locate the material.  This could be the wood doors around the building or the recycled steel used for the handrails.  As a final product for this unit, the students either individually or in a group build a house using recycled materials.


photo courtesy of Moseley Architects

(photo courtesy of Moseley Architects)


The first how can i buy ambien online grade presentation focuses on the building orientation and the movement of the sun through the building during the day.  Students learn how the solatubes on the third floor and in the downstairs art and music room help to bring in natural light. They visit the garden roof to learn about the solatubes and the sun screens on the outside of the building (which can be observed from there).  One final activity involves an observation of the classrooms on the north side of the building versus the classrooms on the south side of the building. The classrooms on the south side have interior light shelves that bounce the sunlight further into the classroom. During the presentation and tour, students observe the difference between the amount of daylight in the south and north facing classrooms.


Second graders end their science unit on studying sound with a tour of the mechanical rooms in the building.  Students learn about how designers and builders have to plan for noise control due to the vibrations of the building equipment.  This noise control becomes very obvious to the students when they visit the mechanical rooms that are often just above classrooms. The students also feel the vibrations made by the large machines and observe the mechanisms used to control the sound.  Students are thrilled to have the opportunity to go into spaces that are otherwise “off limits” to them and leave with a better understanding of the purpose of the spaces.


Third graders revisit sunlight while exploring the nature category of green features at Northside.  Their presentation focuses on the orientation of the building and how it impacts the natural spaces around the building.  They spend time tracking the shadow the building makes on the garden roof, observing plants on the roof to study the impact of light on their growth, and working in the school garden.


The fourth graders’ presentation focuses on erosion control.  The presentation includes a large picture of a forest followed by a large picture of that same forest that has been cleared to build a new high school.  The ensuing discussion focuses on how, when an area is disturbed (such as a forest), we have to plan for erosion control by building drainage ponds and using pervious materials in our buildings.  Northside’s pervious pavers and rainwater cisterns are then presented to the fourth graders as solutions for erosion control. The fourth graders then go on a tour of the outside of the building to learn about the giant rainwater cistern system buried under our parking lot and the water flow control system in place to protect a creek flowing below our school. Students follow-up this learning in their science unit by creating stream tables and controlling erosion in their own experiment.


Energy is the focus for the fifth grade presentation and tour.  The green features of Northside that they learn about include: high efficiency windows, reflective roofing material, and the heating and cooling system. A part of the presentation involves analyzing the on-time data of energy usage via the interactive dashboard.  The fifth graders then tour the heating and cooling mechanical rooms, and the cooling tower just outside these rooms. Students apply this new knowledge about the building to what they are learning during their science instruction.


screen shot of Northside's dashboard

(screen shot of Northside’s dashboard)


Through active and static signage, collaboration with the architectural firm, and curriculum integration, Northside students learn firsthand about the application of science on a daily basis using the building as a teaching tool.  All three of these steps can be applied at any school simply by learning about the physical space, collaborating with community members and even other departments within a school system, and visually displaying information about the features of the building through professionally made signage or, even better, student made signage.


About the Author

Molly Stoffregen has been a teacher in the Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools for over 15 years. She received a BA from UNC – Chapel Hill in biology, followed by her M.Ed. in elementary education from UNC – Greensboro. For the past 4 years, Mrs. Stoffregen has been the literacy coach at Northside Elementary and was a member of the planning team to open the school in 2014.  She became enamored with the building during construction and participated in every tour and opportunity to spend time at the building.  Once the building was finished, Mrs. Stoffregen immediately knew the space had incredible potential to teach students about the importance of being a responsible, respectful steward of our environment.