A Teacher’s View: Schools May Be the Solution We Need for Climate Change. My Students’ Solar Panel Project Proved It
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I I spent 12 years as a science teacher in a middle school – but no experience could have prepared me for teaching during a global pandemic. COVID-19 was a lesson in patience, flexibility, and the importance of building resilient education systems that can withstand crises. But now that vaccines are being introduced and personal learning is returning, the country’s schools are facing a different kind of plight: climate change.
In recent years, Washington State has changed the landscape of climate protection. In 2019, Governor Jay Inslee signed the Clean Energy Transformation Act – a breakthrough law that will change the way the state’s utilities work and get Washington on the path to 100 percent clean electricity by 2045 while creating good jobs in the process.
But public schools are a battlefield that is often overlooked in visions of a clean energy future. Public schools are the second largest infrastructure sector in the country after roads and highways. But more than half of American districts are disproportionately upgrading or replacing outdated or failing infrastructure in their schools – such as power, heating, cooling, and ventilation systems – in buildings that primarily serve black, brown, indigenous, rural, and low-income students. In the face of a mounting climate emergency, we have an exceptional opportunity to redesign schools to serve our students, neighborhoods, the economy and the planet.
When I talk to my students about the environment, I am not just reciting the science and data – I encourage them to see themselves as agents of change. In 2019, three of my eighth graders and I traveled to the state capital and presented an idea to the STEM Education Innovation Alliance from Inslee: that our middle school would be retrofitted with solar panels.
The project began when I received an email from the Pacific Education Institute asking about the opportunity for students to speak to the board of governors on a topic related to renewable energy. I had just started a lesson on renewable energy with my class, which made this project a great way to bring real-world examples to the classroom.
How can we learn when our earth is on fire?
I was lucky enough to get in touch with Sun’s Eye Solar, a Tacoma-based solar installer, and invited founder Brad Burkhartzmeyer to visit my classroom. He helped students use Google Earth to determine the suitability of our school’s roof for solar panels. When we found that our large, unobstructed roof was a good candidate, we started surveying the school. Students formed teams and measured each wall around the perimeter of the building, then tested a solar powered pumping system to determine the optimal angle of the roof panels and mapped the roof for possible panel placement.
The three girls, Gwendolyn Newport, Annie Son, and Samantha Firkins, who made the presentation at the Governor’s STEM Alliance meeting in 2019, made three main points: that schools often have large, unobstructed roofs; that solar systems produce electricity during the day when schools are in use, so that the collected energy can be used immediately; and that rooftop solar panels provide a living laboratory where students can learn about clean energy and inspire them to pursue careers in the field.
One of my proudest moments as an educator was seeing my students articulate their vision of a clean energy future in the halls of our state government. They artfully stated that our school was an ideal candidate for rooftop solar roofs and that it would be a wise investment.
After the meeting, the pupils presented our project to the school management with the approval and support of our headmistress Christine Brandt, as it would require the support of the board and administration and the installation would become their property and responsibility. During our meetings with the school administration, Sun’s Eye Solar’s Dan Hulse explained to the district’s construction and maintenance staff how rooftop solar systems work; what are the requirements for the placement and connections of the system; and how it can be used as an educational tool. We got immediate help from the district to help us raise funds, and I worked closely with the school district grants manager to apply for funding.
We received $ 50,000 from Tacoma Power’s Evergreen Options Green Energy program, $ 45,000 from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, $ 25,000 from the Pierce Conservation District Green Partnership program, and $ 120,000 from the Trans Alta Coal Mitigation Fund. These grants, along with other fundraisers – such as individual donations and the November month selection to donate from the Tacoma Rainier baseball team – raised our fundraiser to $ 240,000.
When classes resumed in person on March 22, 2021, I urged students to raise over $ 3,000 in April with a promise that if they succeeded, I would dye my hair purple. Although our entire educational system was turned upside down by COVID-19, my students were unwavering in their commitment to this project. Later this year we will have solar panels on the roof of our school. And I’m happy to announce that my hair is currently a brilliant purple.
My students realize what many people don’t know: A school can serve as a model for an infrastructure that prioritizes the health of its community. The retrofitting of clean energy and energy efficiency, the electrification of school buses and modernized heating, cooling and ventilation systems can reduce harmful climate pollution. Making these investments now would save the school districts an incredible amount of money in the long run, while also providing students with cleaner air and better academic results.
But we have to go beyond reducing the carbon footprint of schools to make them resilient in the current climate realm. Damaged and destroyed school infrastructure means more missed days of crucial learning and more instability for students. Faced with unprecedented climate catastrophes – including devastating hurricanes, floods, and forest fires – communities must remember their schools as they prepare to withstand increasingly extreme weather conditions.
In his Build Back Better Plan, President Joe Biden called for $ 100 billion to be invested in modernizing school infrastructure. Now Congress must turn this investment into a reality. In the deepening crises of a global pandemic and climate change, we need to build better by investing in equitable, sustainable and productive learning environments. Our next generation of leaders depend on it.
Kathy Hall is a science teacher at a middle school in Washington State.
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