Taking the Cool School Challenge: A Conversation with Environmental Educator Mike Town
Mike Town is a man with a mission. This Washington state environmental science teacher has spent the past 25 years educating students on environmental issues. His students do real-world projects designed to show the relevance of science, get them thinking about the environmental impact of their actions, and introduce them to the emerging green job sector.
One such project is the Cool School Challenge, a model he helped develop that engages students and teachers in reducing their school's greenhouse gas emissions. Now available for free on the web, this approach has saved over 1.6 million pounds of CO2 nationwide (and saved Redmond High School more than $100,000 over the past three years). And he and his students are scaling up the concept in their community, joining forces with the local government for the “Eco-Office Challenge.”
As a result of his efforts, Town was recognized by the North American Association for Environmental Education for Outstanding Service to Environmental Education by a K-12 Educator in 2009. And April 19, 2010, he was honored as the inaugural winner of the NEA Foundation’s Green Prize in Public Education, the unanimous selection of a panel of national leaders from the environmental, education, business and philanthropic sectors. This prize was developed to recognize and showcase an outstanding public school educator or program that best advances social and environmental responsibility, improves student learning, and can be replicated. (Learn more about Town and the prize here)
Town recently told us more about his work.
Public School Insights: How would you describe the overall need for environmental education right now?
Town: There's always been a need for environmental education, though a lot of folks might say that the need is greater now than it has been in the past. Certainly the need will be greater in the future, because of some of the environmental problems that are escalating. And in that regard, there is an immediate need for environmental education.
But in addition to pressing environmental concerns, I think there are a couple of other reasons why there is really a strong need for environmental education right now. One is that environmental education is a great hook for getting kids interested in math and science, especially the kids that I'm teaching right now, the high school kids. There are really good math and science applications in environmental education, and these applications are a lot more relevant than some of the more esoteric kinds of applications you see in some of the advanced science classes, which unfortunately kids sometimes do not sign up for because they do not see them as relevant. So environmental education is a really good vehicle to teach kids why science is important.
Another major reason is that environmental science is extremely, extremely integrated. When you teach it, you can get way out of the traditional science discipline. You can talk about how environmental science impacts quality of life issues. It shows kids that you have to be well-rounded in your educational background if you want to understand environmental science.
A third reason is that there is a huge occupational component to environmental education that has developed in the last year or so—green jobs, whether in alternative energies, new green construction techniques or whatever. But in general, schools are not doing a great job of letting kids know about how they can get into those types of fields and why there is tremendous growth in them.
So you take those things and you add on climate change and some of the other traditional environmental science issues that have all of a sudden reached some level of criticalness, and now students want to learn more about environmental issues. And they have to have a place where they can do so. Unfortunately, less than 10% of high schools across the United States have a course in environmental science, and a lot of the connections that you need to understand environmental issues just are not being put out in traditional classes.
Public School Insights: And you are an AP environmental science teacher?
Town: I teach AP environmental science. I also teach a course in environmental design and sustainability. And I'm a CTE teacher—both of these classes are CTE. CTE is career and technical education.
Public School Insights: AP environmental science is considered career and tech ed?
Town: Mine is.
Public School Insights: Interesting. I would like to come back to that. But first, I understand that your students’ AP scores are well above district and state averages, which suggests to me that your students are really engaged in the class. Could you describe some of the projects you've undertaken with your students that have really motivated them?
Town: With the AP class itself, the curriculum is somewhat canned. There is a certain amount of material that you have to cover for the kids to do well on the AP test. But what we do is look at AP environmental science as one of a series of opportunities for the kids. So we have AP Environmental Science, we have Environmental Design and Sustainability, and then I give up my planning period every day to do what is called “Independent Science Research,” which is basically Advanced Topics in Environmental Science.
But for example, in the environmental design and sustainability class, we are doing a project right now in which we will totally revamp the transportation plan for the city of Redmond, where we live. The kids are coming up with a regional transportation plan centered around a non-motorized, pedestrian-friendly village center. They are utilizing everything from bikes to light rail to buses and other transportation options to link the residents of Redmond to this town center, and then also to link the surrounding communities together. This is a really interesting project, because right now in the area where we live there are huge, huge issues around transportation planning and quality of life, and there is competition between cities about which is going to be more livable. And more livable tends to be more sustainable. So we are having the kids think about where they want their city—their hometown—to be in 20 years.
We're moving from that directly into a green building project. Students are going to be designing residences that will use green building techniques from the foundation through the ceiling. They will be drafting floor plans and building three-dimensional models.
From there, we will go to a community planning and urban design project in which the kids will develop a completely new community on paper. The community will have green buildings. It will have transportation planning. It will have sustainability in everything from agriculture to water waste and anything else the community needs. We will put it all together. Those are the kinds of projects we do.
We also do Cool Schools. About four years ago the mayor of Seattle decided that he was going to voluntarily have Seattle meet the Kyoto protocol numbers. And hundreds of cities have since signed up for this challenge.
I heard about it, and I started thinking about how in Redmond and in most of the small cities in the United States—suburban cities, rural cities—the single biggest greenhouse point source is the local high school. So we designed a way to measure the carbon footprint of a high school and then reduce it down to Kyoto levels or below, to fit in with this city challenge.
We are now about 44% below Kyoto. Some of that is due to infrastructure changes, but most is due to behavioral changes. In this project, our students measured the carbon footprint for everything that happens in the school, from transportation to electricity to heating and waste. They got every teacher to sign on to reduce a minimum 2000 pounds of CO2 per year in their classroom.
We then got some partners—our local utility company, our local clean air agency and our state Department of Ecology. And we built a replicable model for reducing the carbon footprint of a school, and then we exported it out for free across the United States. We have trained hundreds and hundreds of teachers on it, and we have all kinds of schools that have signed up to do it. Some of them have reported their results back to our website. Overall, we have saved around 1.6 million pounds of CO2. That is just counting the schools that have reported results. A lot of schools just pick up our curriculum from the web and go from there.
Public School Insights: What are some of the specific steps that individual teachers can take to reduce their carbon footprint?
Town: A quick and easy one is control of lighting. If teachers turn off their lights when they go to lunch or during their planning period, or if they are in a lecture and there is one bank of lights that they can turn out…We have shown how much that saves. For example, in our building, in most teachers’ classrooms, one light switch is on a bank of three light switches. One light switch saves a little bit under half a pound of CO2 per hour that it is off. So if a teacher turns off three light switches during planning period or lunchtime, that can very easily save 300+ pounds of CO2 per year. Just that simple action. We go through the same calculations with all the electrical appliances we have. We have shown teachers how to monitor heating use in the classroom. And we have a partnership with the city of Redmond that is called “R Trip.” It is carpool incentives—we have gotten a grant so that if a teacher carpools 50 times, and reports it, we give him or her a $50 Amazon gift certificate. That has saved huge amounts [of CO2]. And then recycling. Every pound of material that is recycled is 3.5 pounds of CO2 that is saved. Taking those actions combined it is really not difficult to save 10 pounds of CO2 per day, and over a 200 day school year—it is 180 days [with students] plus the extra days that we are [at the building]—they have met the challenge.
Our power bill has gone down by $30,000 [since we started this challenge]. So every year we save $30,000 on electricity. We also save almost $10,000 in waste costs over where we were in pre-numbers.
And we've been working with our congressman, Representative Inslee, to put together federal legislation that would give schools another incentive to reduce their carbon footprint—a match from the government. One of our big sound bites on that idea is that if a school reduces CO2, okay, good—they save money. But in order to reduce CO2 they have to teach math and science and get kids involved. And critical thinking skills and project-based learning are part of that. But also, the idea is that the students, once they learn how to save energy at school, will have a multiplier effect at their homes and throughout their lives.
When we think about the best dollar by dollar expenditures in dealing with energy issues, it is not just throwing money into solar panels. The best expenditure is efficiency. And we do not really fund a lot of efficiency programs—I mean, behavior efficiency programs, in which efficiency occurs through behavioral changes. But this is really where we should be putting money. It has immediate responses and benefits, it has the multiplier effect, and it doesn't cost anything. The small, little incentive would be the only cost. And then what we do here at Redmond High School could be duplicated throughout the United States, with benefits far and wide to the country.
This is not the only way we are looking to scale up the work that we have done at Redmond.] We did a presentation at city hall about the transportation plan, and the city council was really interested in having the kids display their work down there.
We are also working with the mayor right now on an extension of Cool Schools, which is called “Go Green.” The Go Green program includes Cool Schools, and it is a partnership between the municipal government and the school district, which in Washington state are separate. Sometimes it is difficult to build bridges to work together, but that is what we are trying to do. With Go Green, after we got all the schools in Redmond going with Cool Schools, our next step was what we are calling the “Eco-Office Challenge,” in which the kids go out and do energy audits of businesses. We are just starting this project. Our pilot—and the idea for our pilot came from the mayor of Redmond—is a competition between the six Redmond fire stations to reduce their greenhouse gas footprint. The kids do it all with this project—they do all the measuring, they crunch the numbers, and they write the reports. They also do the media on it—they market it. They came up with the title, “The Firehouse Cool Down Challenge.” That is all part of the Go Green initiative. And Congressman Inslee has been really supportive that, of all of the work we are doing.
Public School Insights: It sounds like the kids are doing some fairly advanced stuff. This work does not need “basic skills.” It needs problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills. And this brings me back to what you said earlier about your AP class being a career and technical education class. At many schools there are two tracks—the career/technical track and the college-prep track. But you have combined them somehow at Redmond.
Town: With 200 kids enrolled in our AP environmental science class, and with all of them taking the AP test and getting vocational credit, we can break that barrier down. And when the kids do projects it allows them to get out of their stereotype, the kind of cliquish deal about the brainiacs and the voc kids.
We have a really strong belief, or I certainly do, that most kids can succeed in AP classes. And that we have to eliminate the barriers to those classes. So we do not have a prerequisite for this class. We welcome all of the kids, and the kids are really successful. They end up getting 12 to 13 college credits for the AP class. If they get a B in the class, they get eight college credits from one of our college partners. Then if they pass the AP test, which most of them do, they get another four or five college credits.
For this class, we really like to attract those students who are economically disadvantaged, and show them that, yes, they are smart enough to go college, even though they may not have taken all the tougher classes. A lot of times, the barrier to college is just a philosophic barrier—they do not have the money to go the college, so why should they take college-level classes? We work on that. One of the ways we do it is to show them that this class is really meaningful from a jobs perspective. This economy has been very helpful in getting that message across. And at the same time, we show the kids that in order to be successful at your job, you have to do the academic learning component of your job as well. To be a lifelong learner, whether you go to college or not, is really critical in terms of your individual job success.
We also try to spend a fair amount of time building confidence. That is another thing that we try to get across.
Public School Insights: Have you been able to follow the students who maybe were not on the college track to see if they ended up going to college, or perhaps started taking more college-prep classes?
Town: We will be doing more tracking of that with the design and sustainability class. But right now we do a very poor job of tracking our students. We have lots of students who have gone on to four-year colleges, and a fair amount who have gone on to two-year colleges. But all I have is anecdotal experience from my more middle-level students who have come back and said they are working in the field.
And there is an environmental science college up here called Huxley, which is pretty well known locally. It is on a campus with Western Washington, and it is very selective—there are only 200 kids admitted each year. For maybe ten years we have been the biggest feeding high school for that program.
Now that I have taught for over 25 years, my former students are in so many different occupations in the environmental fields. It is kind of neat to follow them.
Public School Insights: As I am sure that you are aware, the Obama administration has called for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind. Are there any changes that you think should be made to that law, or to federal law in general, that would support your work as an environmental educator? You have already talked briefly about the legislation you are working on with Representative Inslee.
Town: I spend a fair amount in Washington, DC, working on all kinds of different issues. My background is in terrestrial ecosystems, and I have worked a lot in public lands protection. But lately I have been working on environmental education issues. And the reauthorization is really interesting because it has a couple of different components. The President has stressed environmental literacy as something he would like to see as part of this reauthorization. And there is a bill that we have been working on for a number of years called “Leave No Child Inside” that would basically authorize funds for environmental education, mainly hands-on environmental education. From what I understand, that is going to be folded into the reauthorization, rather than be a standalone.
I was up on the Hill in November working on some other bills. There is one called “B Wet,” which is an environmental education bill that deals with marine issues—estuaries, marine ecosystems in general. There are also Environmental Literacy Grants, which are to be getting authorized at a higher level.
In the last climate change bill, the Warner-Lieberman bill last session, an amendment passed in the Senate that would put proceeds from cap and trade into a dedicated fund for environmental education. And a climate bill, or maybe we are going to call it an energy bill, is going to develop in the next couple of months and maybe utilize some of the stuff that has already passed, so we are hoping that there is going to be some environmental education money in there. As I said before, funding “efficiency education” at the federal level has a positive multiplier effect.
All those things are good. And I worked on the Race To The Top grant application from our state. One of the major components of that is STEM education. We did a lot of work with what we call “Green STEM,” environmental education and science, math, engineering and technology as they relate to the new green economy.
Hopefully, some of this stuff will see the light of day in some of these different bills as they all get sliced and diced into some comprehensive package, whether it is in this legislative session or next session.
Public School Insights: Hopefully you are going to be in a good position with some of these policies because you have financial data to show they save money, which is huge given how much district budgets are going to be struggling in the next few years.
Town: Yes. We have saved way over a hundred thousand dollars over the past three years, and it did not cost us anything. The cost is to educate other teachers in how to do this and give them a little bit of incentive, buy them some materials. And then we can replicate it.
The federal government funds schools. Well, if a federal program saves money at schools, it is exactly the same thing as increasing an authorization to schools. So it kind of defeats the whole argument of “pay as you go,” because you do not have to raise taxes to save money when you save energy. It is very hard to defeat that premise. So we are hoping that we will be able to get some traction on that.
Public School Insights: Are there any questions I should have asked you but didn’t?
Town: I will give you another piece of news here. Next year I am actually going to be in Washington, DC. I have got a fellowship funded through the Department of Energy, and I am going to be working on some of these issues. I am going to be doing some policy work on environmental education, science education and STEM. The fellowship program is for educators to basically take a sabbatical, a year out of their classroom. After 25 years in the classroom, it is going to be interesting. Going to DC for a year will be interesting. But it will be a good year to go, because I think that ESEA is going to be interesting to watch.
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
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The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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