By. Jenny Wiedower, K-12 Education Manager, U.S. Green Building Council


The synergies that exist at the intersection of technology and sustainability have abundant applications within schools. For school leaders, digital record-keeping allows for faster and more reliable data – and ensuing action – on potentially interrelated metrics such as student performance, absenteeism, and asthma. School facilities staff increasingly use digital monitoring to pinpoint and improve inefficiencies in and around schools, which oftentimes results in healthier environments and utilities savings. In the classroom, teachers switching from textbooks to tablets are conserving trees and unlocking a world of information and opportunities for skill-building that will set students up for fulfilling careers and lives that support a more sustainable future.


When used effectively, technology can turbocharge the formation of a student’s worldview by bringing the concept of sustainability into sharper focus. Students have a greater ability to observe and empathize with communities across the globe who look different from their own. Likewise, students can use digital tools to experience the past and envision a future that is impacted by the decisions we make today.


Feedback from educators and administrators reveals that technology has significant potential in the development of 21st century skills – those that are most often cited as preparing students to manage and lead a future that is more sustainable than our current state. A 2018 report from The Economist’s Intelligence Unit entitled “Fostering exploration and excellence in 21st century schools” draws on a survey of 1,200 educators in 16 countries. The report found that technology is most effective at supporting the four teaching strategies that are most frequently cited as important for preparing students for the modern workplace: project-based learning (80%), active learning (78%), personalized learning (76%), and cognitive activation (74%). The report also found that teachers who are utilizing technology effectively are seeing the impact: approximately three in four educators say it enhances project-based learning (76%) and can make education both more collaborative (75%) and personalized (72%).


Those are impressive and compelling numbers, but how does an educator know if he or she is using technology effectively? According to the 2017 Speak Up report from Project Tomorrow, K-12 technology leaders say that the greatest challenge they face in implementing digital learning or expanding technology use is motivating teachers to change their traditional instructional practices to use technology more meaningfully with students. “Trends in Digital Learning: Building teachers’ capacity and competency to create new learning experiences for students,” a survey of more than 514,000 K-12 students, parents, educators, and community members, begins to outline steps teachers can take to become more comfortable and successful in achieving their intended outcomes via digital learning. First, teachers surveyed identified the elements they need to effectively and efficiently integrate digital content, tools, and resources into daily instruction in their classroom. These elements include planning time, access to technology in the classroom, technology support, professional development, and consistent, high quality Internet connectivity. The report also found that teachers who themselves learn with digital tools (in their own professional development) have stronger valuations on the role of technology within learning, and higher aspirations for leveraging technology to support transformed learning environments.


Once a teacher has the essential elements identified above, finding curriculum that has been developed to foster sustainability literacy and enhance project-based learning, collaboration, and personalized learning is just a few clicks way. Let’s look at a few examples from Learning Lab.


Learning Lab is an online platform for teachers to access hundreds of lesson plans that foster sustainability literacy. With content from 11 education partners, Learning Lab acts as a digital farmers’ market: a central location where curriculum designers bring their best products to show and share. With Learning Lab, teachers who are looking for high quality curriculum that supports hands-on learning, real-world relevancy, service-learning, and standards-alignment have a “one-stop shop” to browse, sort, compare, and rate lessons they want to implement in their classrooms.


Among the 500 lessons in English and Spanish found in the Learning Lab catalog are some that are grounded in digital activities – watching videos, playing games, conducting online research, etc. – and others that involve no student screen time. Resources on Learning Lab – the preparation instructions, supporting materials, lesson scope and sequence, assessment suggestions, and extension opportunities – are all in a digital format; teachers can modify for implementation as they see fit.


These three lessons from Learning Lab illustrate the range of approaches to engaging with digital tools to support 21st century skill-building, namely project-based learning, collaboration, and personalized learning.


Water Data Is Beautiful
Authored by EcoRise and RIS, Water Data Is Beautiful (for grades 11 – 12) is the last in a series of four lessons that walk students through a school water audit. After students have designed the audit, collected data, and synthesized it into meaningful parts, this final lesson helps them learn how to communicate their campus water management recommendations to administrators, the student body, and beyond. Students work in small teams to explore ten recommended websites and web tools to learn strategies for presenting data in interesting, relevant, accessible, and visually appealing ways, such as through infographics. Then students take the information they collected and analyzed during the audit and create a plan for communicating their recommendations to campus administrators, parents, students, and others. Finally, students execute their plans by writing letters to administrators, creating a showcase presentation of their findings, writing and performing public service announcements, and implementing concrete student action plans. This lesson is excellent for developing collaboration skills, as the same student groups work together throughout the audit process. Students’ different strengths emerge during the different phases. Some may be expert data compilers while others are excellent communicators. Hopefully, as students learn about their school, they are also learning about themselves and each other, and how to use complementary strengths to work together effectively.


Urban Runoff
Authored by the Nature Conservancy, Urban Runoff (for grades 9 – 12) introduces students to a variety of nature-based design ideas and asks them to consider which one would be best suited to deal with urban runoff on their school grounds. To make the impacts of stormwater runoff more visible to students, the educator is encouraged to conduct a rainy-day schoolyard tour where students examine and chart how stormwater flows on school grounds. Classes have the option of using Cornell Lab’s “Habitat Network” online tool to map their school grounds and identify areas for improvement – making their school part of a massive citizen science project to map urban habitats. If students implement any of their projects, the changes can be added to the Habitat Network map, and year-over-year, students can return to their school’s profile on Habitat Network. The site also contains extensive information and examples of habitat improvement projects. This lesson meets the markers of high quality project-based learning because it fosters collaboration, produces student work that is publicly displayed and is relevant to the students, and encourages students to think critically about an issue in their own backyard.


Meter Reading Master
STEMhero’s curriculum empowers students to collect and analyze their electricity, natural gas, and water consumption by investigating the meters they find in and around their home or school. Through the program and its interactive online platform, students create a baseline of their home and/or school’s consumption; then, they decide on and measure the impact of efficiency behaviors and technologies. Students’ findings of which efficiency practices worked best are shared with family and the community. This particular lesson (for grades 6 – 8) provides students with a non-intimidating way to learn how to make a first accurate reading of their unique meter. Students are set up for success thanks to lots of examples, working together with their peers, and getting their reading verified by an expert. An Integrated Science educator in an urban public school who implemented this lesson said, “We have spent a lot of time in my eighth grade class talking about sustainability this year, but this activity gave them real-world experience that they will use in the future.”


Author Bio

As K-12 Education Manager, Jenny Wiedower leads the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) efforts to support teaching and learning as a key component of any green school. Her work to convene stakeholders and deliver tools helps ensure that all students graduate high school educated for a sustainable future within this generation. She leads the development of USGBC’s K-12 education platform, Learning Lab, the Green Classroom Professional Certificate program, and initiatives to connect high school students to resources to support green job explorations. Jenny holds a B.A. in English Literature from Rhodes College and a M.S. in Environmental Studies from the College of Charleston.