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The Sustainability Lab: Developing Middle School Students' Ecological Literacy through an Exploration of Green Schools

Lisa Marie's picture


Three years ago, my younger sister Julie began her middle school at REALMS (Rimrock Expeditionary Alternative Learning), a charter school in our hometown Bend, Oregon. The school’s purpose is to

 “foster scholarship, strengthen community, and inspire stewardship through active learning by actively challenging our students to investigate, understand, and become stewards of the human and natural world around us. To do so, we pursue experiences both inside and outside the classroom that help our students develop a core set of academic skills and learning habits; that encourage them to explore and identify their values; and that foster the inspiration that comes through service to others and adventure” (REALMS 1).

During the sixth grade, my sister and her classmates spent a significant amount of time in and out of the classroom exploring sustainable systems and structures in Portland, Oregon. The students learned about sustainable architecture in class for a couple of months leading up to a field trip which offered Julie and her classmates the opportunity to tour sustainable schools and other facilities throughout Portland. Following their trip, the sixth grade students presented their observations to their fellow students, teachers, and families. I had the privilege of attending this culminating presentation a couple of years ago, and was struck by how much the students learned on their trip and the autonomy they had in creating and carrying out the presentation.

 My Environmental Education curriculum is largely inspired by and modeled after REALMS’s active learning approach, especially through ways the school incorporates fieldwork in different programs of study. I intend to make my curriculum as versatile and modifiable as possible, so that students from all backgrounds and types of schools can learn more about and actually see for themselves different sustainable structures and systems. In developing this course of study, I draw on Goleman’s text, particularly his concept of “ecoliteracy” (11). 


In Goleman’s Ecoliterate, he defines the concept of an emotionally and socially engaged ecoliteracy” in terms of students “strengthening and extending their capacity to live sustainably” by:

  1. Developing an empathy for all forms of life by “students expanding their sense of compassion for other forms of life”
  2. Embracing Sustainability as a Community Practice by teaching students that “organisms do not exist in isolation […] through the consideration of the role interconnectedness pays in communities”
  3. Making the Invisible Visible by fostering students’ recognition of “the myriad effects of human behavior on other people and the environment”
  4. Anticipating Unintended Consequences by getting students to predict “the potential implications of [human] behaviors as best we can, while at the same time accepting that people cannot foresee all possible cause-and-effect associations”
  5. Understanding How Nature Sustains Life by encouraging “students to cultivate a society that takes into account future generations and forms of life” (11).

In my curriculum unit, titled The Sustainability Lab, I intend to encompass Goleman’s “emotionally and socially engaged ecoliteracy”.   

The objectives of the Sustainability Lab are:

  • To inspire students to critically think and learn about steps that larger institutions, particularly schools can take in reducing their impact on the environment.
  • To learn about sustainable practices the students can take into their homes, future schools, and careers.

 The students will fulfill these objectives by engaging in their own research, meeting individuals who design green buildings and develop sustainable practices and technology, learning more about and touring sustainable schools, and developing their public speaking skills.

This course of study is designed for eighth grade students, although it can be easily modified to meet the needs of a sixth or seventh grade class. This curriculum unit will be carried out for roughly thirteen weeks and will be integrated into the natural science, math, and social studies classes offered. The time frame for this curriculum is suggested—if teachers feel that more time should be spent on a particular idea or concept, they should elongate the time spent on any one activity or lesson. The students will spend the first seven weeks learning about sustainable green practices in general and the more specific ways in which schools, government offices, and other workplaces utilize these green practices while engaging in their own research across different disciplinary classes. During week eight, the students will have the opportunity to tour some of the schools and buildings that have reduced their ecological emission. In the final few weeks, the students will spend constructing a proposal for their school that offers ways their own school could cut down on its impact on the environment. In the final, thirteenth week of this curriculum, the students will present their proposal to an audience of classmates, parents, teachers, school administrators, and community members.  Students will also produce a short reflective essay on how they can personally reduce their ecological footprint.


During the first week, the students will gain an introduction to the entire curriculum by learning more about the idea of an “ecological footprint”, specifically their own ecological footprint, as well as their class’s ecological footprint. Throughout the week, the class will unpack the term “ecological footprint” by learning about how this is calculated and its limitations. At the end of the week, students will learn about how different organizations are going about limiting their impact on the environment. 

Title of Lesson: Introduction to the Sustainability Lab, taught as part of the Science class

Main Idea: To introduce the students to the idea of the “Ecological Footprint” and the ways they as individuals and as a class can reduce their ecological footprints.  


  1. To facilitate the students’ understanding of the ecological footprint and sustainable practices

  2. To learn more about the different ways individuals and structures can measure their ecological footprint

  3. To encourage students to begin thinking about ways sustainability intersects with their lives by learning more about how they can reduce their own ecological footprint & how they can make changes within their own classroom.  

Materials: The first activity will have to be done in a computer lab, or a space where students have access to computers and internet. Other materials: Poster paper and markers.   


  1. On Day 1, the students will take an ecological footprint quiz as an entry point in to the larger sustainability discussion. This is an individual quiz, so students will learn more about how their personal habits and behaviors interact with and affect the natural environment.

  2. On Days 2 and 3, the students will learn about how an ecological footprint is calculated.

  3. On Days 4 and 5, there will be class discussion on how the individual students and the class can change their habits and behaviors that affect the environment. The students will individually write down two ideas for ways they can change their habits (eg. Turning off lights when they are done, using less water, etc.)  In small groups, the students will write three ideas for how the class as a whole can limit their consumption and impact on the environment. The small groups will share their ideas with the rest of the class and the posters will then be displayed around the classroom for the rest of the time this curriculum unit is used. The following day, the entire class will come up with and vote on a list of five ways in which they will commit to reducing their ecological footprint as a class.

WEEKS 2-8 

During weeks two through eight, the students will continue working as a class to cut down on their impact on the environment. The class will also learn about the many ways in which different schools and organizations use sustainable practices. The students will learn about this through small group research, speakers, and other activities. 

Title of Section: Sustainability in Action!

Main Idea: This section of the curriculum is designed to give students a better sense of the various ways in which organizations are becoming more sustainable. Some of the activities will be taught in a science class, while other parts of it will be taught in a social studies course.


  1. To introduce students to the ways in which organizations are developing more sustainable structures and practices
  2. To give students the opportunity to learn more about how sustainability intersects with their city by hearing from different speakers
  3. To encourage students to begin thinking of changes they could make in their own school to make it more sustainable

Completion Standards: The students will demonstrate a greater understanding of how sustainability works in action. They will begin thinking of how broader structures beyond their individual and classroom level can be more sustainable. 

Materials: For some of the activities in this section, students will need a computer lab, or a space where there is access to computers and internet. Other Materials: poster paper and markers.


  1. During Weeks 2 and 3, the students will learn about sustainability practices that different organizations can adopt. This series of lessons will be conducted in the science class.
  2.  During Week 4, the students will learn about the challenges of making a building more sustainable. This lesson series will be taught in the science class.
  3. During Weeks 5 through 8, the students will break up into small groups to research sustainable structures. In four small groups, they will research different green schools in the area; the places they will be ultimately visiting. After conducting their small group research, the students will create posters listing the ways the schools practice sustainability. The groups will present their findings to the rest of the class, and their posters will be displayed around the classroom.
  4.  During Weeks 5 through 8, the students will also hear from different speakers: an architect, a representative from a solar power company, and a geologist.

WEEKS 9-10

During Weeks 9 and 10, the eighth grade students will tour the different sustainable schools they researched in the weeks leading up to this. During the tours, the students will be encouraged to take field notes – jotting down any observations and thoughts they make about the school. The students will also be encouraged ask any and all questions they may have about the different schools they visit. Time permitting, the teacher should provide students to discuss their observations of each of the schools they visit as a larger class.  

 WEEKS 11-13

During Weeks 11 and 12, the students will gather their thoughts and observations about their tours and research to begin drafting a proposal for ways in which their own school could adopt more sustainable practices. If useful, the students could divide up into smaller groups based on their personal interests in different sustainability practices or disciplinary approaches. Once the proposal is typed up and completed, if possible, the teacher should get it bound or put on a laminated cover to make it as formal a document as possible. At the beginning of Week 11, the students should begin reaching out to their friends, family, and community members as well as school leaders and school district administrators to invite them to their formal presentation. Toward the end of week 12, the students should being dividing up the speaking roles for their presentation. Any students uncomfortable with speaking in front of a large audience should be given another role that lines up with their interests and skills.

During Week 13, the students will provide their proposal to a larger audience of their family members, friends, teachers, administrators, and community members. If possible, the students could also present this proposal to their peers and classmates and peers at a school assembly. Following this presentation, the students should reflect on what they’ve learned about through the entire process and write a short essay on how they will adopt more sustainability practices in their own day-to-day lives.


I set out to make the Sustainability as versatile and useful for all different types of schools, communities, and regions as possible. This being said, I recognize that there are many limitations and challenges teachers may face in implementing this curriculum unit. Schools without computers and access to internet may have a difficult time having their students take the ecological footprint quiz and conducting research on the different schools they will tour. If this is the case, the teacher could still explain what an “ecological footprint” is and encourage students to think about what theirs would be. As far as getting the students to research the green schools in their area, the teacher could bring information on the schools to the students and still have them divide into small groups to read over the materials and later present this to their classmates. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, the time frame for this curriculum unit is suggested.  If it takes longer to unpack and explore a particular concept, the teacher should take all the time they can. Another challenge in the Sustainable Lab may be getting the guest speakers to the classroom. This will take significant time and logistical planning on the teacher’s end—they should reach out to as many people whose work has to do with sustainability. While this curriculum unit suggests bringing an architect, solar power representative, and geologist to the class, there are many other positions outside of these that could be useful. Finally, it may be challenging to bring in school district administrators to the eighth grade students’ final proposal presentation. The teacher and students should therefore make an effort to reach out to them as early as possible.  


While the Sustainability Lab has its share of limitations and challenges, there are many elements of the curriculum unit that could strengthen the students’ capacity to change the way they interact with the outside environment. This program of study provides an interdisciplinary to an important issue, and encourages students think of ways to make changed at an individual level within their own lives and at a structural level within their classroom and school. Finally, the construction and presentation of a proposal for their school shows students how they can link their knowledge of environmental issues with activism and social justice.  Developing students’ “emotionally and socially engaged ecoliteracy” is critical in enacting significant change.


The following list provides useful tools such as websites and books that can help make The Sustainability Lab possible.

The Center for Ecoliteracy Website: provides resources for engaging with schools, communities, and leaders and advancing ecological literacy in K-12 schools.

The United States of Department of Education Website: lists the schools across the nation that win the Green Ribbon for being a sustainable school or school district. This list will be useful for teachers looking to find green schools in their state.

The Global Footprint Website: offers a premier measure of humanity’s demand on nature.

Grant, Tim, and Gail Littlejohn. Teaching Green: The Middle Years: Hands-on Learning in Grades 6-8. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society, 2004. Print. This book is designed as a green teaching resource for teachers who work with middle school students. Teaching Green includes a number of practical projects and teaching strategies that cover topics ranging from biodiversity to resource consumption and green technology.

The Science Education Resource Center (SERC) at Carleton College Website: provides a wealth of teaching activities, effective pedagogy, and transformative workshops.

Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching Website: offers teaching and strategies for teachers who wish to use ecological footprint calculations in their classes. 



Goleman, Daniel, Lisa Bennett, and Zenobia Barlow. Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012. Print.

"Realms Charter School | Rimrock Expeditionary Alternative Learning Middle School." Realms Charter School.