By. Steven A. Marable, Ed. D. and Daniel Soderholm, M.Ed.




Currently, there is no set standard for the implementation of environmental education in schools, including those that utilize the building as a teaching tool for students.  A recent study (Marable, 2015) was conducted in Virginia to help establish pedagogical best practices for environmental education, while describing how educators currently use Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) buildings as a teaching tool to support sustainable practices. The findings from that study indicated teachers employ practices that are consistent with current emphases on environmental education.  Data also supported that educators take pride in their buildings and incorporate the facility as a teaching tool in a variety of instructional practices throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia.


This article uses the findings of a recent study and other relevant research to explain and provide real examples of current environmental education practices being utilized to support 21st century skills within LEED certified schools, as well as examples from Virginia schools that are utilizing sustainable practices in the classroom.  Examples are provided by school grade levels and by building features in LEED construction that can be utilized as teaching tools.


LEED Schools and 21st Century Skills

One recent trend in green schools-related research is the use of the building as a teaching tool for sustainability; however, this has not been emphasized in research and there is no set of standards or consistency with regard to school implementation. Little research has been conducted on these subjects (Chan, 2013; Cole, 2013). Instead, much of the research has emphasized building components and energy conservation rather than how building features are utilized to educate students about sustainability.


To be recognized as a green school, the building must teach about sustainability.  Green schools have two components that are tied directly to educating students.  The first component utilizes the building as a teaching tool for students to learn about sustainability.  LEED 2009 for Schools New Construction defines the school as a teaching tool when it has a curriculum based on the green performance features of the building that is implemented within 10 months of LEED Certification.  The curriculum must meet state requirements and go beyond a mere description of the features.  The building should “explore the relationship between human ecology, natural ecology, and the building” (USGBC, 2012, np).


The second component a school must incorporate to maintain its green school status is a curriculum for teaching environmental (or sustainable) education. This component does not directly tie sustainability to the features of the building; rather, it infuses sustainable practices and education throughout the curricula taught in the building.


Due to the wide array of building features that exist among LEED-certified buildings, it is difficult for one to develop a concrete list of specific building features that align with specific pedagogical practices.  Instead, building features that commonly accompany many LEED schools are emphasized and aligned with environmental practices that sustain and further develop 21st century skills. Some examples include:

  • Increased day lighting
  • Automated systems for lighting and water to reduce energy usage
  • Alternative forms of energy
  • Water reduction and rain collection
  • Retention ponds and control for storm runoff
  • Use of sustainable building materials and furniture
  • Green (vegetative) roofs and white roofs
  • Data monitoring kiosks
  • Educational signage
  • Learning gardens
  • Designated areas for alternative transportation (carpool, energy efficient cars, and bicycles)


Involvement in the Planning Process

The Virginia Beach School Division, where a new magnet school is being planned, provides an example. Students and staff are involved in the planning process of a LEED facility, which they will occupy during the 2016-2017 school year.  Both the architect and sustainability coordinator are actively involved to ensure students understand how building features work and why features are selected from environmental sustainability and economic standpoints.  The principal and teachers work to create short videos of many of the lessons from the construction phase to ensure future students can benefit too.  One example of these videos is when a class, to learn about the HVAC system, had a Skype conversation with the sustainability coordinator on the construction site while geothermal wells were drilled.  Core samples from the wells were preserved for students to inspect in Earth Science classes. This particular lesson expands across all 21st century themes, while utilizing technology innovation to place the classroom on the construction site with experts available to lead discussion.


At the elementary school level, 3rd grade in particular, students learn how living and earth systems work together. This theme becomes the ‘Big Idea’ for the students throughout the school year. As an example from the LEED building, students learn about specific building features that help reduce storm water runoff such as green roofs, rain gardens, rain collection to reuse rainwater, and permeable pavers near storm drains. This is broadened as students consider how these features help reduce pollution from storm runoff in nearby watersheds of the Chesapeake Bay.  Taken one step further, students analyze what part oysters play in the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem to help filter pollutants.  This over-arching lesson helps students develop a global awareness of their impact and a higher sense of responsibility for their actions.


At the middle school, students work on capstone projects related to sustainability.  One student wrote a grant proposal, which earned her school $2,000 to build a learning garden that would grow whole foods for students and allow elementary students to learn about plants and their health benefits.


The Teaching Building: Elementary Schools

Students are taught about natural resources and conservation throughout the elementary curriculum.  This allows for building features that are designed to reduce energy, water, and waste to be connected to the curriculum, as well as for educators to simultaneously build on 21st century skills (such as environmental literacy, civic literacy, health literacy, and collaboration) and overarching themes of natural resources and conservation.  For example, teachers can utilize many building systems to show how water and energy usage is reduced or how rainwater collection helps to conserve water.  Students can then research, create, and design their own systems or features that will help to conserve resources.


In addition, LEED-certified schools are required to utilize a recycling program. These programs can be incorporated into school-wide, grade level, or club programs that not only enhance sustainable practices, but improve the school culture while teaching about civic responsibility, global awareness, and environmental literacy.


The Teaching Building: Secondary Schools

While some of the main topics regarding building features may be similar to those covered in elementary school, the curricula in secondary schools allows for more in-depth exploration and analysis that helps students develop life and career skills.   For example, while recycling programs are utilized in secondary schools, teachers can expand student learning by having them collect and analyze a variety of data about what is being recycled, how much is being recycled, and the cost benefits of recycling. This approach can segue into problem-based learning or STEM applications where students use the data they collected to propose more efficient ways to recycle materials, or conserve school resources to reduce waste and school spending.


School teachers also can utilize informal curricula to teach about sustainable building features.  For example, students can lead class announcements and/or newscasts that incorporate information about their building’s sustainable features. This allows information to be cast to a larger audience and supports a school-wide culture of sustainability.


Many LEED-certified buildings contain interactive monitoring systems, which are displayed in common areas of the building.  This allows staff, students, and the community to examine data about building performance with regard to energy use, water use, and water collection, among others.  Teachers can have students use the data to compare energy use with other schools that are not LEED-certified and develop ideas that will help further reduce energy and water consumption.  Students can also analyze how specific building features help reduce energy and water use or assist in creating a more comfortable learning environment as it relates to acoustics and thermal environment.  For example, the orientation of the building with respect to sun exposure, increased use of daylighting, types of lighting and solar tubes used in interior rooms, vegetative and white roofs, and HVAC can affect one’s level of comfort and their ability to concentrate and/or learn.


Mr. Soderholm, a high school principal in a small rural county in Southeastern Virginia, has incorporated several real world experiences for his students to teach sustainability.  He relates:


“Our school has recently doubled its agriculture education program.  We have added three major focuses: plant and greenhouse science; animal care; and power, structure, and technology.  These three focus areas will come together with the culmination of a working school farm.  Our students will be learning through real world experiences such as planning for the needs of crops and animals that will be raised on the school farm.  The students will design, build, and operate the school farm with long-term, hands-on learning.  There are a myriad of learning opportunities for our students to learn responsibility, decision making, and how their farm will affect the community and local ecosystem.”


photo courtesy of Daniel Soderholm

(photo courtesy of Daniel Soderholm)


“The Future Farmers of America (FFA), a co-curricular club, will be resurrected to build and develop this program into a thriving organization for our school and community.  The FFA was founded by an agriculture teacher, Walter Newman, at the school roughly 80 years ago.  Newman later became the president of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, now known as Virginia Tech.  Newman’s FFA was a growth from the corn clubs in the nearby surrounding areas. His purpose was to create ‘a greater opportunity for self-expression and for the development of leadership. In this way they will develop confidence in their own ability and pride in the fact that they are farm boys.’ We have the same goal for our male and female students today.  Living in a rural area, it is important for our students to recognize and accept the responsibility that they have in the environment and how to be leaders in the agricultural business.  Our students will be full participants in the FFA including agricultural competitions, leadership development, and training in parliamentary procedure. We believe that being competent in agricultural and government topics and being armed with leadership skills will put our students in a prime position to effect change in our world as environmental stewards.”


Taking the First Step

It is important to understand that implementation of environmental education does not occur overnight. The process should be planned out with annual goals or benchmarks.  For example, many of the LEED Schools in Virginia incorporated a recycling program and/or community partnership/outreach as part of their environmental education practices (Marable, 2015).  A recycling program is relatively simple to start and can include a variety of items (paper, aluminum, plastic, cell phones, batteries), while involving all staff and students.  Community outreach/partnerships vary according to location and geography of the school division (Marable, 2015).


Another common feature found in the study (Marable, 2015) involved building a learning garden on school grounds. Learning gardens blended easily with science and culinary arts courses, and can be utilized in a variety of ways that offer students hand-on learning experiences.  Project-based learning activities were a common activity found in the research too.  Examples included: STEM projects; collecting and monitoring data on recycling, energy use, and water use in the building; and creating videos to advertise sustainable aspects of the building and programs (Marable, 2015).



The practices and strategies mentioned are valuable additions to a school’s formal and informal curricula.  They incorporate real-world concepts and high engagement hands-on activities, which assist in creating 21st century learning opportunities and authentic experiences for students.  These are educational aspects in which all instructional leaders can find value.   In LEED schools where the building is used as a teaching tool, however, it is important for education leaders to consider ongoing staff development, so they are aware of the sustainable features and learning opportunities that exist within and outside of the building.



Environmental Protection Agency. (2014). Sustainability. Retrieved from


Kats, G. (2006). Greening of America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits. Retrieved from


Marable, S.  (2015). Green Schools – The implementation and practices of environmental education in LEED and USED Green Ribbon public schools in Virginia. The Journal for the International Society for Educational Planning. 22 (1), 49-65.


Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2014). Framework for 21st Century Learning. Retrieved from


About the Authors

Steve Marable is currently an adjunct professor at Virginia Tech. Prior to this role, he served as a middle school principal, school administrator, secondary teacher, and coach with Virginia Beach City Public Schools. In 2014, Steve received the Outstanding Dissertation Award from The International Society for Educational Planning (ISEP). In addition, he presented the findings from his study, ‘Green Schools – The implementation and practices of environmental education in LEED and USED Green Ribbon public schools in Virginia’ at ISEP’s annual conference in Cyprus, October 2014. He has presented on the subject of green schools at several state and national conferences as well.


Daniel Soderholm is currently the principal of Windsor High School.   As principal he has led the school’s return to full accreditation status, implemented a 1-to-1 student iPad and laptop initiative, added an Academic Enrichment Period, a basketball league for students with intellectual disabilities, and multiple athletic teams.  He is now leading a new academic focus with Deeper Learning utilizing project-based learning and new career and technical education opportunities.  Previous to his current position, he was an assistant principal, athletic director, and high school history teacher.  Soderholm holds a B.A. in History Teaching from Brigham Young University and a M.Ed. in Educational Leadership from Virginia Commonwealth University.  He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Leadership at Old Dominion University.