In Eco Schoolhouse, it's easy learning to be green

Tuesday, October 14, 2008 | 6:26 p.m. CDT; updated 9:14 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 15, 2008
From left, second-graders Ethan Harrington and Malik Hayes, wearing an orange shirt, lie on the floor during reading time in the Eco Schoolhouse room at Grant Elementary School on the morning of Monday, Oct. 6, 2008. The room was constructed using recyclable materials and is environmentally friendly. The Eco Schoolhouse has inspired the school community to integrate earth-friendly lesson plans and recycling into its daily routine.

COLUMBIA — At Grant Elementary School, the new Eco Schoolhouse is not only changing the curriculum, it's changing how students learn about their relationship with the environment.

Jenifer Hartz teaches hersecond grade class in the Eco Schoolhouse. The classroom was built primarily by volunteers and by a team of design consultants, material suppliers and contractors led by Nick Peckham of Peckham & Wright Architects to replace a trailer that burned down in December. Construction of the schoolhouse cost $250,000. An insurance settlement from the fire covered part of the cost, and volunteers contributed both labor and money to cover the rest.

Because of the Eco Schoolhouse, conservation has become a substantial part of the Grant curriculum.

"It's one of our top five goals of the school year," Principal Beverly Borduin said. "It's become part of what we do at Grant school and how we think about our resources. And it's not just the children — it's become a whole school goal."

The curriculum changes include adding books that focus on environmental issues, such as "A Kid's Guide to Global Warming" by Glenn Murphy and "The Lorax" by Dr. Seuss, which "teaches readers not to fool with Mother Nature," according to an review.

The schoolhouse is also open to community organizations and public tours.

"We're very willing to share," Borduin said. "Mrs. Hartz has been very good about that."

Students in Hartz's class were eager to share their knowledge of the building in class on Oct. 6.

"The floor's made of corn products," said student Cooper Zimmerschied, pointing at the green, red and blue tiles. Most materials in the schoolhouse are local. The only items not made locally are the Walk-Off floor mat in the entrance of the schoolhouse, which was made in Massachusetts, and the solar panels, which are from Japan.

"We have new recycling bins," student Fiona Allen said. "We have paper bins, can bins — aluminum can bins — and plastic bins."

The recycling bins were built into drawers that are made of birch, a local, fast-growing wood. When Peckham built them, he made them an integral part of the building to set an example. He is hopeful the Eco Schoolhouse, which stands for "ecology" and "economy," will help to standardize an environmental way of building.

The students pointed to the walls painted with colors to symbolize grass, sun and water. Each color can be found in nature, Peckham said, because he felt it would better connect the students to the outside world.

"And that one is for clouds," Allen said, pointing to a skylight overhead. Multiple skylights are set in the ceiling, which student Ross Steelman also pointed out.

"And what do the skylights do, Ross?" Hartz asked.

"They give light so we don't have to use as much energy," Steelman said. On a sunny day such as that Monday, all the light the students needed came through three tubular skylights. Light enters through a clear plastic cover set in the roof and is reflected through a shiny metal tube down to the ceiling.

Even the artificial lights are more green. Each bank of lights is separately controlled. The manual switches are inconveniently located to combat the automatic reaction most people have of walking into a room and reaching for the light switch, Peckham said. He is working on getting a system that will turn the lights off automatically when there has been no movement in the room.

"And that remote controls the air-conditioner," said Allen. The air conditioner — a slim, white box — sits over one window.

The heat pump functions as both an air conditioner and furnace. The heat pump has an efficiency rating of 18; most products considered to be "high" efficiency only rate about 12, according to Peckham.

A favorite part of the classroom is the rain barrels that collect storm water that runs off the roof, cutting down the amount of water that runs into the storm drains. Water in the barrels will feed an outdoor garden with trees and plants native to Missouri, which is expected to be planted this fall. In addition to the garden, solar panels and acoustical panels that reduce echo will be installed inside.

Hartz said the schoolhouse has helped her illustrate what she is teaching. The students can't do everything, she said, so they've focused on what they can do, such as recycling and helping their parents recycle. The classroom has brought more of a focus on sustainability and energy use.

"The children have really enjoyed finding out the features of the classroom," Hartz said. "Hopefully, that will carry over in their lives as they grow — just an awareness of the environment and that what we do daily does have an effect."

Other students have opportunities to use the classroom. The new environmental club, headed by fifth-grade teacher John Neis, meets there. The club uses the Eco Schoolhouse to learn about constructing green buildings, and sorts recycling for the entire school, Borduin said.

The students said they believe it's important to build places such as the Eco Schoolhouse.

"So we won't pollute so much," said Steelman, one of the students at the school.

"It saves the environment more," said Allen, another student.

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Jenner Greener October 17, 2008 | 1:15 p.m.

This is great news more schools should start earth-friendly school projects. My local school has also started an eco-friendly campaign and only use recycled materials for anything. I recently purchased moving boxes and packing supplies from and liked their service so I passed the savings onto the school for any school projects they need that may require recycled cardboard boxes. They loved the idea!

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