By. Karla Utting
Karla Utting was honored as a Best of Green Schools 2017 Honoree at the Green Schools Conference and Expo in Atlanta this past March.
Greening K-12 schools has taken different forms in the United States. These range from the implementation of sustainability programs spearheaded by visionary school districts, to the role of nonprofits filling an educational gap around environmental sustainability and climate change issues, to leading schools encouraging sustainable practices and injecting sustainability principles into their operational culture. The green schools movement in Miami-Dade County embraces all three approaches and has grown stronger over the years because of innovative educational programs. These programs have empowered students with the knowledge to understand why climate change is occurring and provided hands-on experience to develop the skills needed to resolve environmental issues.
I strongly believe that fostering a commitment to stewardship efforts from an early age is important to be able to achieve a more sustainable society. Dream in Green, the nonprofit organization where I worked for six years, has made environmental education programs, designed to help students nurture sustainable behaviors and develop strong leadership skills, accessible to students, parents, and teachers in South Florida. As students learn about our planet’s environmental challenges, they are empowered to take action at their school, home, and community.
In the 11 years that I have lived in this County, I have witnessed multiple efforts at the district, community, and school level which have motivated me to address sustainability issues at K-12 schools. I can now say with confidence that the students of Miami-Dade County understand the environmental challenges we face as well as the importance of sustainable practices and behavior. However, every year new minds need to be educated and therefore our programs must evolve to capture interest.
The programs I successfully oversaw educated more than 100,000 students a year. Their success can be attributed to the following features:
- Competitions between schools.
- Hands-on monthly activities encouraging students to think creatively.
- Activities were made fun and challenging and were renewed every year.
- Teacher trainings, resources, and tools for effective program implementation.
- Educational workshops to communicate the urgency of climate change and solutions to students, teachers, and parents.
- Awards and prizes to recognize outstanding efforts of schools, students, teachers, administration staff, and facility staff.
- Monthly funding opportunities for student Green Teams to implement projects.
- Real-life experiences through community events and initiatives.
- School presentations by community professionals.
- Newsletters highlighting efforts of green schools and opportunities for being ‘green’ in the community.
- Summer internships for high school students.
- Field trips to corporations excelling in green buildings, sustainable manufacturing, ‘green’ education, etc.
- Evaluation of programs with feedback from teachers to make improvements.
In 2011, I was involved in the development of a innovative sustainability curriculum and its implementation in more than 100 K-12 schools. In 2013, I led my team to develop a new ‘graduate’ level curriculum focusing on the water and energy nexus which was offered to schools with more than two years participation in ‘green’ activities. In 2015, I opened the doors to organizations reaching green schools to work together through a platform which offered services such as school recruitment, grants, professional development training workshops for teachers, newsletters, etc. The programs are ongoing and are having a big impact. Collaborations have been formed and evolve every year, and communication is highlighting the urgency of the issues and moral obligation we have as a society to pass on to our children a world that is livable.
The biggest challenge of all is funding. Without the continual funding commitment of crucial government entities such as Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Miami-Dade County, and the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, it is difficult to grow programs year to year. This is the challenge, and once it is resolved, our programs will go a long way to ensuring an even bigger impact on sustainability in our community.
Karla Utting is a “green” professional with a mission to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for South Florida. Through program development and implementation, she worked to advance the green schools movement for six years as the Executive Director of Dream in Green. She now works for Miami-Dade County and is creating an energy efficiency program for the largest utility in the southeast. Karla was a nominee for the “Green Means Green” 2016 Award by the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce in the Green Leadership Professional category and was a 2017 Best of Green Schools honoree in the Ambassador category.