Saving energy in schools

Driver Raymond Cruz, passenger Austin Crary and friend Michael Boyland put a new spin on fuel-free transportation.

Driver Raymond Cruz, passenger Austin Crary and friend Michael Boyland put a new spin on fuel-free transportation.

It's fun to go green

Take one giant three-wheeled bike, add a red wagon, a good friend and a loud horn and the result is energy-saving fun. "It was a cool way to get to school, though it was kind of hard too," said bike owner and wagon puller, Raymond Cruz, a sixth-grade student at Whitehorse Middle School. "I'd definitely do it again."

Cruz and his buddy—and wagon occupant—Austin Crary were just two of the many participants in the school's "Most Creative Way to Get to School without Fuel" contest. Others included skateboarders, three-legged walkers and bicyclists.

"My dad helped me come up with a safe route," said fellow sixth grader Michael Boyland, who came to school by bike. "It was good exercise and it was fun and helped the environment."

The contest was sponsored by the school's Green Team and was one of the activities the group came up with to help students at Whitehorse become more environmentally aware during its Green Week celebration. Others included lunchroom recycling bins, a tree planting, a "green day"—when students and staff dressed in green and the class with the most participants got silk-screened T-shirts designed to celebrate the week—and daily readings of energy-related statistics over the school's P.A. system.

Brendon Lerch, Alyssa Sohrweide, Jenny Lema, Kaylee Pahlow and Maria Schaefer get in step with their school's Green Week activities.

Brendon Lerch, Alyssa Sohrweide, Jenny Lema, Kaylee Pahlow and Maria Schaefer get in step with their school's Green Week activities.

"I was really surprised by how many people participated all week, especially with the green day. Kids really got into it—my favorites were a green tutu and green safety goggles," said seventh-grader Helen Rottier, a member of the Green Team. "It's important for kids our age to learn more about the environment—it's our future and we really should know what's going on."

"Kids have to know the consequences of their actions," agreed fellow Green Team member, Hector Bon, a Whitehorse sixth grader. "The information that we're sharing with them this week is a good place to start."

This year's Green Week was such a success that the school is already planning next year's event and hopes to have a monthly Green Day. "The kids did a great job coming up with activities and finding ways to inspire the other students to participate," said principal Deb Ptak (who arrived at school on a three-wheeled scooter). "It was exciting to see their ideas blossom and how seriously they took the project."

The energy challenge

We're used to high schools competing on the football field and the basketball court, but Madison East and West high schools recently took competition to a new venue: the electrical grid.

West High School Green Club members, Hannah McCreary, Andrew Lager (green T-shirt) and Tyler Fassnacht (white T-shirt) helped promote Earth Day energy saving at their school.

West High School Green Club members, Hannah McCreary, Andrew Lager (green T-shirt) and Tyler Fassnacht (white T-shirt) helped promote Earth Day energy saving at their school.

On Earth Day, staff and students at each school jockeyed for the chance to be the school that saved the largest percentage of electricity by turning off lights, shutting down computers and unplugging equipment.

East High students reminded their teachers and classmates to use energy wisely by issuing "citations" to those who had forgotten to turn off unneeded lights and computers. West High students put up signs and worked with teachers to promote the event. "And I think it helps that we share results afterward," said Andrew Lager, a student at West. "People are excited to know what they accomplished."

Although East High kids jokingly claimed they'd win the competition by "going over to West and turning on all their lights," West's savings topped East's, 16% vs. 6% (official results were tallied by MGE).

Don Vincent, an Earth Science teacher at West High School, hopes to get more schools involved in the competition next year. "People have a lot of fun with this, and no matter which school has the best numbers, we all win because we save energy and release less CO2. We hope this can inspire people to think about their energy usage and to realize that every day is Earth Day."

Lights out

"Turn off the lights when you leave the room!" We've all heard it—and probably said it. But have you ever really stopped to consider the impact lights have on energy use? Students at Middleton High School (MHS) and Middleton Alternative Senior High (MASH) have thought about that question a lot this year.

Deb Weitzel and Heather Messer—science teachers at MHS and MASH respectively—recently received a grant from the Wisconsin Environmental Education Board (WEEB), plus matching funds from MGE, to study this question. This money was used to hire the services of Rapid Improvement Associates, a company that specializes in energy efficiency programs, and to purchase Fat Spaniel.

Middleton High School students Kayla Ripp, Nick Jauch and Carson Davis  brainstorm ideas for a carbon-neutral school.

Middleton High School students Kayla Ripp, Nick Jauch and Carson Davis brainstorm ideas for a carbon-neutral school.

Although the name might conjure images of an overweight dog, it's actually a software program. This handy tool taps right into a school's electricity meter and creates a graph that shows energy usage and CO2 (carbon dioxide) generation. Fat Spaniel downloads energy data every 15 minutes and provides a fast and easy way to see the impact of equipment use—in this case, lights.

At MHS, students decided to see how much energy they could save by turning off select classroom lights throughout the school's math and science wing. At MASH, students turned off lights in classrooms and hallways and used photometers to see if light sensors in unoccupied rooms were working—and most of them weren't!

The MHS study was run by two different classes. The first group saw a 15% drop in energy usage; the second saw savings of about 10.5%. The lower amount was probably attributable to the fact that many teachers were already using fewer lights after participating in the first study.

MHS students estimated they could save roughly $1,500 annually if their proposed lighting changes were made. In reality the annual savings turned out to be closer to $600, likely due to lower-than-ideal compliance. But this is still enough to save 8.1 tons of CO2 annually and to power the average size home for nearly a year. The changes at MASH added up to a whopping $1,784.21 in annual energy savings—or enough to pay the school's gas and electric bill for an entire month.

"It's been great for the kids to do something that connects the real world and the classroom," said Messer. "And it's been exciting to see how the kids take this knowledge home and change behaviors there too."

"It's cool to walk by classrooms and see that they still have their lights out," said Carson Davis.

"There was plenty of light in the classrooms and the halls—you really couldn't see a difference," said Samantha Moreland.

"At home now it's just automatic to turn off my desk lamp and unplug things I'm not using," said Chelsea Elsberry-Ophime.

Middleton Alternative Senior High students Nick Ward, Katie Basler, Carissa Wigington and Samantha Moreland use a portable light meter to determine if room light sensors are working.

Middleton Alternative Senior High students Nick Ward, Katie Basler, Carissa Wigington and Samantha Moreland use a portable light meter to determine if room light sensors are working.

"It's an easy way to save money and help the environment," said Carissa Wigington. "It seems like something everyone could do."

A smarter school

Rooftop solar panels. Revolving doors that generate energy. And a hillside location for better insulation. These are just a few of the innovative ideas MHS students came up with to create a carbon-neutral school.

"Middleton has an upcoming referendum for a new school and I thought it would be fun to have the kids design one that didn't add carbon dioxide to the environment," said Advanced Placement Environmental Science teacher, Deb Weitzel.

Students were divided into four groups: building design, interior materials and water conservation, landscaping, and energy conservation. To learn how they could create a more earth-friendly school, Weitzel invited architects, a LEED certification specialist and other experts to speak to her classes.

Students were careful to balance Earth-friendly solutions with real-world challenges.
"It might have made sense from an energy standpoint to install wind turbines, but we knew that neighbors would be concerned about ruining their view," said student Cody Statz. "That's why we chose a combination of solar, geothermal and radiant heat."

Shyenne Hopson and Sydney Walter  give their compost pile an enthusiastic stir on a recent spring day.

Shyenne Hopson and Sydney Walter give their compost pile an enthusiastic stir on a recent spring day.

Inside the school, students recommended water-saving gray-water toilets, floor plans that allowed the school to be used for students and community activities, and skylights and light shelves that let natural light penetrate further into classrooms. Outside, grounds were populated by native plants instead of grass, carpools and green cars were given priority parking, dark-sky lighting minimized light pollution and a green roof, porous pavement and rain gardens let storm water seep into the ground.

Students were universally enthusiastic.

"Designing a school like this would be a good way to establish new norms, to make energy efficiency the conventional choice," said Tewosret Vaughn.

"If you teach people about sustainability when they're young, you can help them develop good habits," said Patricia McMurray.

"I think people would take the initiative to incorporate energy conservation into their buildings if they understood it better," said Kristi McGinley. "Maybe a project like this can help."

Given the budget constraints that most cities are under, the up-front costs of a project like this might seem prohibitive. "But over time, they'll pay off," said student Margo Hubbard.

Turning trash into a new kind of treasure

A team of student composters circle the school cafeteria each lunch hour for contributions to the school's compost bin.

A team of student composters circle the school cafeteria each lunch hour for contributions to the school's compost bin.

You might look into a cafeteria trash can and see garbage, but to students at Lake View Elementary those orange rinds and apple cores are fertilizer in the making. Concerned by the food waste they saw each day, and wanting to cut the amount of garbage that goes into landfills, a group of Lake View Senators—the school's version of student council—worked with teacher Susie Hobart to start a compost project. And with one compost bin nearly filled and a second coming soon, the project will soon generate fertilizer for both a school flower garden and a neighborhood apartment building.

"We have about 12 kids doing this," said Hobart. "They take turns with lunchroom duty and have regular meetings to discuss the project. They're very dedicated."

Follow the students on their rounds, and that commitment is easy to see.

"Most of them know what they should compost, but sometimes we have to help the little kids," said Sydney Walter, this year's student facilitator, as she donned plastic gloves and picked up her white collection bucket.

"It's nice that kids want to help us out, but we want them to eat their lunch too!" said her co-composter, Shyenne Hopson.

The two girls traveled from table to table, collecting scraps of fruit, vegetables and eggs. When lunch was over, their buckets were dumped in the outside compost bin, which the girls stirred enthusiastically with big sticks.

"This morning it looked like it was full," said Shyenne. "But we just mushed everything down and there was a lot of room."

Inspired by the amount of food they've collected in their compost bin, the students have also added a new dimension to their project.

"We did a survey to see what kind of foods students liked," said fellow Senator Talia Resnick. "We're going to give it to the school superintendent and see if it makes a difference in the foods they serve—and how much ends up in the compost!"

Contemporary Literature students participated in a letter writing campaign to educate politicians about  their environmental concerns.

Contemporary Literature students participated in a letter writing campaign to educate politicians about their environmental concerns.
(Front-left to right) Bansari Shah, Bridget McCanna, Valmai Hanson
(Back) Loreal Malloy Tyler Yarbrough

Write on

Students in Patrick Grady's Contemporary Literature class at West High School are using a letter writing campaign to draw attention to their concerns about the environment. Inspired by their recent reading of "The Old Man and the Sea," the students are reaching out to local, state and national politicians to share their concerns—and suggestions for tackling them.

Bridget McCanna wrote about decreases in the bee population caused by standard agricultural practices and the impact this has on Wisconsin farmers. Loreal Malloy shared her concerns about fish choking on plastic grocery bags and recommended greater use of cloth tote bags. Tyler Yarbrough suggested mandating the restriction of phosphates in fertilizers and requiring buffer zones to decrease environmental damage. Valmai Hanson focused on finding alternatives to coal power and Bansari Shah sounded the alarm on the impact CO2 is having on the world's coral reefs.

"We've taken our environment for granted for too long," said student Bridget McCanna. "The book, and the assignment, challenged us to notice it and do something to protect it."

Pedal power

At Lincoln Elementary, kids are pedaling their way to a better understanding of energy efficiency with an "energy ware" bike that powers LED, compact fluorescent and incandescent bulbs. While LEDs light up with a few easy pedals, "it's really hard to get the incandescent ones," said student Jasmine Bradley.

Madeleine Douglas  puts her mettle to the pedal as she's cheered on by Noah Friedlander and Cameron Carlson.

Madeleine Douglas puts her mettle to the pedal as she's cheered on by Noah Friedlander and Cameron Carlson.

But that doesn't stop the kids from trying. Most pedal furiously to make the incandescents shine and it sounds like the sidelines at a sporting event when they succeed.

"The bike is a great tool for helping the kids understand energy efficiency and the impact different choices can have," said their teacher, Clare Seguin.

This knowledge has come in handy during the school's annual Bright Idea lightbulb sale. Over the last five years, the students have sold over 7,305 compact fluorescent and LED bulbs at a CO2 savings of more than 10 million pounds. "The people who buy the bulbs are really impressed that the kids know so much about energy efficiency," said Seguin.

"Compact fluorescents and LEDs last longer so there's less to go into landfills," said student Noah Friedlander.

Top bulb seller Jarrett Peeler said, "When I go to houses in my neighborhood, I tell them how they can save energy with these bulbs."

"We've been using the same lightbulbs at our house for more than two years," added Madeleine Douglas.

In addition to educating neighbors and reducing energy use, the students' efforts are also helping fund school programs. They've have raised over $10,000 to pay for school garden supplies, environmental field trips and the Homegrown Snack Program. "These are all programs that help the students become more aware of the world around them," said Seguin.