Whether it was the volcano project, or the “dropping the watermelon off the roof” example of gravity, these are examples of educating students about systems. For me, in elementary school, we had a program called “salmon in the classroom” where in our hallways there was a fish tank for salmon hatching. Each year, we would watch as salmon eggs hatched and grew in to tiny fish, then we would collect the fish, take them to the UW salmon pond, and they would be released into portage bay. This learning activity was so fundamental to my understanding and appreciation of the life-cycle of salmon, as well as to the historic and cultural relevance of salmon to the pacific northwest. The point being, is that when kids are educated about living systems, that knowledge and appreciation can become so fundamentally ingrained into one’s habits and attitudes during adulthood. So why not use school buildings and school grounds as an example and platform to teach students how energy, water, and humans operate as interdependent systems.
The Bertschi School in Capitol Hill, Seattle, is a great example of this. The Bertschi School and its’ building/design partners attempted the Living Building Challenge (for the west science-wing of their building), which is essentially a measurement system that sets the goal of creating a building that generates more energy than it uses, captures and treats all water on site (rain, gray, black) and uses healthy building materials. The building is fully equipped to meet this challenge, but due to regulatory barriers and lengthy permitting processes (concerning potable water, utilities jurisdictions, etc), the building does not operate completely as a closed system, yet.
Importantly though, the education programs within the school are tightly connected to these building innovations. A pebble-lined stream runs through a classroom and is a looking glass in to the flow of rainwater being collected from the roof; a teaching lesson for watersheds, rivers and streams. Gardening beds are used every spring and summer, educating students about growing food, all while reusing either treated graywater or collected rain. A vegetated green wall is on large display and showcases the process of phytoremediation. Maximized natural light and clean air are the norm, by using building materials clear of anything toxic. The project involved multiple third parties; architecture firm, construction, landscape firm, etc. and costs were almost completely fundraised. Jerry Seinfeld said that innovation happens when you start by saying: “you know what I’m sick of?”. Well, i’m sick of not seeing more schools like the Bertschi school.