Green schools aren't only effective at helping the environment—they can also produce kids who are more knowledgeable about environmental issues.
"The idea is that by being exposed to this innovative design every day at school, along with a sustainable school culture fostered by educators, students will inherently learn and appreciate the importance of green buildings," says Laura Cole, a professor of architectural studies in the University of Missouri's College of Human Environmental Sciences.
A study, led by Cole, set out to test whether "Teaching Green" middle schools actually made a difference to the kids taught in them. She defines the schools as "places where architects and educators have aspired to use the school building to amplify student understanding of environmental sustainability," and notes that, until now, the efficacy of these schools has not been well examined.
The results show that kids, as we already know, learn by mimicking what we do, and not what we tell them to do. Students taught in green schools "had much higher levels of environmentally friendly behaviors while at school, such as recycling and turning off lights," says Cole. They also showed much better knowledge of environmentally friendly practices in general.
The schools include obvious features like easy-to-use recycling facilities, plus less obvious ones like open-air hallways (which don't need to be heated or cooled), repurposed construction materials, and exposed beams and other architectural features that let kids see how the places are put together.
While purpose-designed schools are great, ripping all our schools out to replace them with greener buildings is impractical, and more than a little environmentally dodgy itself. But existing schools can participate at lower levels by introducing greener practices. "Anything educators can do to utilize existing space can help their students’ green building literacy," says Cole.
Around 50% of all fossil fuels burned in the U.S. go to heat up buildings, cool them down again, and power their lights and appliances. Teaching future and current generations of kids to turn out the lights, or not leave the faucet running, or to maybe put on a damn sweater instead of cranking the heating could some day have an impact on future energy use.