Last spring, students at Ballard’s Adams Elementary School toted some of their science lessons outdoors. On the lawn beside the building’s front steps, landscape architect David Minnery involved first-, second- and fifth-graders in the design process—including model building, site analysis and mapping techniques—for the school’s new rain garden.
The resulting landscape feature (which helps manage stormwater and, in doing so, improves water quality in Puget Sound) includes a rain chain that channels roof runoff into a cistern, then into a stormwater planter, then into a poured-concrete “swale” on its way to a depression in the earth stocked with native plants. The rain garden beautifies school grounds and diverts rainwater from the city’s wastewater system, but it serves a third important purpose as an ongoing resource for student learning.
“The garden will be used extensively next year as part of the science curriculum,” says principal Anne Johnson. “For elementary-age children, being able to see and experience something concretely helps them make the jump to more abstract concepts.” Minnery adds, “Math is another easy tie-in—measuring and comparing rainfall, or how long it takes to fill the cistern. I think there are no limits to how this type of ‘classroom’ can be used as a learning tool.” The landscape architect found research supporting his project’s academic benefits in a 2000 study by the California State Education and Environment Roundtable, which concluded that students learn more effectively in what the organization calls an “environment-based context.”
This may be why more and more Seattle-area schools are developing projects that aim to boost school sustainability while also giving kids new opportunities for hands-on learning. Some schools restore wetlands or install native plant gardens. Some link up with Puget Sound Energy’s Solar4Schools program, through which more than a dozen schools have been outfitted with demonstration solar panels like the one at Interlake High School in Bellevue, where a solar-powered concession stand serves up hot dogs, popcorn and real-time data about the amount of energy generated by the 4-kilowatt array. The utility also provides science kits and activity guides for teachers.
In an especially ambitious project, Capitol Hill’s Bertschi Elementary School (bertschi.org) is providing such “context” with a new science wing (to be completed late this year), which is slated to be one of the most sustainable buildings in the Northwest. Following the guidelines of the international but locally based sustainable building project called the Living Building Challenge (ilbi.org), the wing will generate all of its own energy and use only water from rain falling on the site. It is being built to comply with a “red list” that prioritizes carbon footprint concerns and proscribes common building materials considered too toxic to meet Living Building standards (certification will take another year). The school is betting that the building itself will be an educational tool at least as valuable as beakers and dissection kits. “Students will learn about passive ventilation, net-zero water and net-zero energy consumption,” says head of school Brigitte Bertschi. “These concepts will push their thinking and understanding decades into the future.”