Green Schools : Electric Youth


Students from Montgomery County Public Schools light the way to energy efficiency.

A STUDENT COMMITTEE whose main duty ischanging light bulbs may sound like the punch line to a badjoke, but as the students and faculty at Montgomery CountyPublic Schools (MCPS) in Rockville, MD, know, changing a lightbulb is no laughing matter. As part of the district's green initiative,all standard incandescent and fluorescent light bulbsmust go, and careful planning must be done to ensure that notone old bulb in the district's 200 schools is left behind. Eventhe illuminated exit signs must be tallied. Once inventory iscomplete, the old bulbs will be replaced by a variety of energyefficientlighting alternatives, including individual task lamps,LED lighting, and good old-fashioned daylight.

Electric Youth

teams are leaders of the district's
conservation program.

As technology expands its role in the classroom and more districts adopt year-round schedules, K-12 energy use and its affiliated costs are skyrocketing. It's a truth that weighs heavily not only on the environment, but also on a school's budget. Money that could be better spent upgrading computer hardware and software is instead needed to cover electricity costs generated by the obsolete machines the new units would replace. By focusing on the big picture and retrofitting older buildings with energy-saving substitutes, MCPS is relieving the burden of its increased technology needs while teaching its students how to become better global citizens.

But how exactly does a district get students excited about energy use? MCPS created a program called the School Eco Response Team (SERT), through which each school in the district receives personalized guidelines for energy usage and is rewarded for achieving those goals each semester. A school's goal is based on its history of energy usage; results are judged by comparing current use against the same semester from two years earlier.

The SERT program functions just like any other school club. Interested students sign up and attend regular meetings, where they decide on a course of action. They hang posters throughout their campuses encouraging energy conservation and post signs above light switches as a reminder that lights should be turned off when leaving a room. Armed with light meters, wattmeters, and thermometers, the students measure the amount of light emitted in a teacher's classroom, or the heat produced by an unused computer or classroom mini-fridge. In many cases, they issue "tickets" to the offending teachers.

Anja Caldwell, former manager of the SERT initiative and now the manager of the Green Building Program, another aspect of MCPS' conservation effort, says that recruiting students for the program is a snap. "There are two students in one of our high schools who are always with their wattmeters, showing teachers how much energy they're using," she says. "The kids really get into it."

The school's SERT teams help maintenance staff with the task of swapping out all T-12 and T-8 fluorescent bulbs with more-efficient, low-mercury T-8 fluorescent lighting. The new T-8 bulbs are made with a thinner glass tube than T-12s, producing more light per bulb, and contain less harmful mercury than older T-8 bulbs. That's where the light meters come in. Students measuring the light intensity in classrooms when every fluorescent overhead light fixture was in use found that the bulbs were emitting 120 foot-candles, the standard unit of light intensity. Caldwell says the ideal measurement for a classroom is 35 to 50 foot-candles; anything more can increase glare and tax students' eyes. By filling only half of the classrooms' existing fixtures with low-mercury T-8 fluorescent bulbs, the district has reduced not only its energy bill, but also the stress on students' and faculty's eyesight.

The SERT teams discovered another interesting fact with the aid of their wattmeters: Many teachers were keeping on their overhead lights while working in their empty classrooms during off hours-- 1,500 watts of energy were being used to light a room for one person. The teachers had no other option. The district began purchasing Ikea task lamps with compact fluorescent bulbs for the teachers' desks at about $10 dollars per lamp. By using a task lamp rather than overhead lights while working in the classroom alone, teachers used 15 watts of energy rather than 1,500. Suddenly, grading papers and creating lesson plans became much less expensive.

Electric YouthTaking the LEED on Conservation

Montgomery County Public Schools has finished construction onGreat Seneca Creek Elementary School, Maryland's first LEED(Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified elementaryschool. Created by the US Green Building Council,LEED for Schools providesdesign and construction standards that account for the uniqueneeds of K-12 schools. By treating Great Seneca Creek Elementaryas an interactive classroom, the school's 640 elementary studentshave become experts on the green building materials and technologyused in the project-- including dual-flush toilets, bathroom stallsmade from recycled plastic, and a geothermal heating and coolingsystem that harvests the constant temperature of the earth.

For a student-created virtual tour of Great Seneca Creek ElementarySchool, visit here.

The same concept was applied to the computer labs, where overhead lights can increase glare on monitors. By purchasing a set of Ikea floor lamps for each lab and lighting them using compact fluorescent bulbs rather than traditional incandescent bulbs, the district cut down the energy used in an already electricity-heavy room. Next, the district switched out the incandescent bulbs in illuminated exit signs with LED lighting. At about $40 per bulb, LED lights are too expensive for classroom use, but with a life span of 50,000 to 60,000 hours (versus about 1,000 hours for an incandescent bulb) and using a fraction of the watts, they are "a no-brainer," Caldwell says, for use in lighted exit signs.

Another energy-saving solution Caldwell introduced to the district was the installation of translucent roller blinds. Unlike traditional blinds, which block daylight altogether, translucent roller blinds, made from basket-woven fiberglass materials, allow outside light into the classroom while providing complete privacy from outside views. By allowing filtered daylight into the classroom, a school can eliminate the need for overhead lighting altogether during the brightest parts of the day.

MechoShade Systems, a New York City-based company known as a pioneer of solar shading, donated its ThermoVeil vinyl roller blinds for trial use in two science labs at MCPS' Northwood High School. In the time since the donation was made, MechoShade has developed a new, translucent EcoVeil roller blind that is completely free of PVC, a popular plastic, ensuring that the blinds will not only trim energy costs while in use, but also reduce future waste issues at the end of their lifetime-- not to mention protect students from the health risks linked to PVC. Caldwell is hoping to introduce EcoVeil blinds districtwide in the near future. Unfortunately, roller blinds are still an expensive option, but, as with many energy-saving products, the high initial costs are relieved down the road.

With the SERT program, Montgomery County has tapped into the cheapest and most effective way to cut energy costs-- changing user habits. Turning off lights in an empty classroom; using desk lamps rather than overhead lighting; eliminating vending machines from cafeterias; powering down computers and monitors at the end of the school day-- these are the ultimate energy savers, and according to Caldwell, they have borne a 15 percent drop in the district's energy costs.

What MCPS has done is involve its students in tasks that could have easily been assigned to building maintenance. As a result, according to Jill Coutts, a science teacher at the district's Poolesville High School who works with the school's SERT team, "These kids have changed the whole culture of energy use throughout the district." Borrowing from an old proverb, you might say the district had the wisdom to teach its students to fish, and in so doing has provided them with lessons that will serve them a lifetime.

Jennifer Demski is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.