by ioby
July 13, 2012

Single file, an entire class of thirty fourth graders are guided down to the school building’s basement and into a highly restricted but crucial space, no larger than a studio apartment—the boiler room. Paul, a custodial staff, turns the boiler on, and smoke begins to emerge from the pipes. Led by Sashti Balasundarm, a Solar One instructor, the students experience first-hand how fossil fuels are used to heat their classroom.

“With this experience the students learn that burning fossil fuels causes not only environmental problems but also health,” Sashti told ioby last month. “Often times, students will ask why we are still using fossil fuels if they are harmful to us.” From there, the boiler room lesson shifts to talking about renewables and the possibility of creating energy without pollution. This is lesson one in the Green Design Lab (GDL) program, which utilizes the school building as a laboratory for hands-on learning.

The GDL program is run by Solar One, a New York City nonprofit environmental organization, in partnership with the Department of Education (DOE). Participating K-12 public schools endure in a year-long curriculum and program focused on understanding energy issues and reducing the school’s energy consumption. Solar One instructors, like Sashti, visit twice a week to teach kids and help them with energy projects. 

Students at the Hubert H. Humphrey PS 57, located in Staten Island, New York have been participating in this program since 2010. The students, four fourth grade classes and the school’s Green Team, have been conducting energy audits using kilowatts meters to record and display the amount of energy that their school uses. From the readings they are able to determine where energy reduction is possible.

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In 2011, with over 25% reduction in carbon emissions, PS 57 placed third in the NYC Green Cup Challenge, a competition created by the Department of Education Sustainability Initiative to encourage participating schools to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions and electricity use. The winning school was Martin Luther King Jr. Educational Campus, reducing 35.1 %. This year the school reduced an additional 16.6 % of carbon emissions with the help of their supporters.

“One of our strongest allies has been the custodial staff. They have been amazing and remarkable in improving [energy efficiency] and trying to win the contest,” said Sashti. “They help us identify spots where energy is being wasted and the children make awareness posters and write notes about it.”

The school’s Green Team is led by the school’s sustainability coordinator, Patricia Lockhart, and consists of 40 students, including special education students and 4th and 5th graders. Currently, they are working on an energy conservation themed project. After analyzing energy readings, the students figured out that upgrading the school building from incandescent bulbs to LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs, would be the best way to save on energy costs. They plan to replace 104 300-watt incandescent bulbs with 12-watt LEDs in the cafeteria, auditorium, and hallways. They are raising funds through ioby in hopes of further reducing their school’s carbon emissions for the 2012-2013 Green Cup Challenge.

Students at PS 97 have showed great enthusiasm about energy conservation outside the classroom. “Some of them have questions and approached me afterwards saying, ‘Hey, Mr. Sashti,—I’ve  spoken to my father, the landlord and the super of the building, and I told them about CFLs [compact fluorescent lights] and they were like, ‘oh great idea’ and are switching over.’” Another student has initiated a petition, getting other students and faculty to sign her notebook to promote energy conservation. After collecting enough signatures the student plans to show the petition to administrators to increase action. “I wasn’t even expecting those ideas to come forth as I was teaching them” says Sashti about the students going the extra mile.

Many students who participate in the Green Design Lab program understand the need and importance of saving energy. They are reaching out to their peers, teachers, parents, and even their community to help lower CO2 emissions and create healthier living spaces for a better and greener future.

To help PS 57 switch to LED bulbs, donate here.

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