MU researcher mixing \"green\" construction with environmently-friendly curriculum

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COLUMBIA - Laura Cole, assistant professor of architectural studies at the University of Missouri, is working to implement environmental-based curriculum in Columbia public schools. Cole said she spent several years as an interior designer, which led her to begin her research about environment-friendly buildings, also known as "green" buildings. 

"I noticed we were making huge strides in doing environmental-friendly buildings technologically. But I began to wonder are we also doing something good for the culture of these organizations with our green buildings?" Cole said. 

She began her research with a study conducted on five middle school buildings from different parts of the country. Cole said she selected the schools based on whether or not their buildings were designed to be environmentally educational. 

She said the goal of her research was to find out if students are actually learning from the green buildings they use every day. 

"If we're going to go to this expense and trouble to build green school buildings, are we getting more than just the environmental and energy efficiencies in the building, but are we also teaching students about the environment as they use the buildings day to day?" Cole said. 

Cole said the idea of looking at buildings as a teaching tool for students is a complex one, but her research showed her the building is actually an important piece of the puzzle. 

"I found in my research that the building really can help support better behaviors like more recycling, water conservation and really pull students into those environmental-friendly practices," Cole said. 

Buildings in the United States contribute about 50 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions. Cole said she believes in order to address environmental issues we need to address the way we build buildings. 

"A green building uses less energy, helps to conserve water, uses local and natural materials and the list goes on and on," Cole said. 

One of these green buildings already exists in mid-Missouri where it is used as a fifth grade classroom at Grant Elementary School. 

John Nies, a fifth grade teacher at Grant, said the school's green building was built after one of the mobile classrooms burned down nine years ago. Nies said a lot of community effort helped create the eco-building. 

"Having the building gives us an opportunity to talk more about resources and current trends in terms of the environment," Nies said. "We've included more of a focus on that in our curriculum." 

He said the building has helped students with a variety of subjects and projects that benefit the community. 

"The building helps us learn about sustainability initiatives as well, but then we can use that to go off in many different directions in our curriculum," Nies said. 

Cole said she hopes to incorporate her research into the Columbia public school system and study how Grant Elementary uses its green building. 

"I think curriculum is the major missed opportunity at this point. We have these great green buildings, but there's no real formal green building curriculum out there," Cole said. 

Cole said she hopes to build a pilot program of possible curriculum, test it and present it to the Columbia Board of Education. 

"We would like to work with fifth graders throughout the year next year and have them talk with us about what they're learning in their green building," Cole said. 

She said even though her research was based on green buildings in elementary schools, she believes the public needs to be educated on environment-friendly buildings too. 

"People own homes, they run businesses and we're making decisions about buildings all the time without architects," Cole said. "I would love more people to understand even small changes that can happen in buildings to make a big difference for environmental impact."