Saving Energy in DC Schools Looks to Students for Ways to Reduce Consumption

Horace Mann sixth-graders Rosa Santori, left, and Anna Fishbein check the voltage on a sharpener with teacher Marti Goldstone.
Horace Mann sixth-graders Rosa Santori, left, and Anna Fishbein check the voltage on a sharpener with teacher Marti Goldstone. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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By Timothy Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009

With the increasing cost of and demand for energy, many D.C. schools are taking suggestions on how to conserve from some unlikely consultants: their students.

Fifteen schools participated in the first year of the Saving Energy in DC Schools program, an initiative by the Alliance to Save Energy and the D.C. Department of the Environment to promote better energy use at schools.

A ceremony Thursday at the Marian Koshland Science Museum in Northwest recognized four schools for outstanding work in three categories: curriculum integration, community outreach and overall audit report.

"We feel like this year was tremendously successful," said Merrilee Harrigan, vice president of education at the Alliance to Save Energy, a nonprofit organization that promotes energy efficiency.

The SEDS program is part of the alliance's Green Schools effort, a national energy conservation initiative involving about 200 schools in California, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee and Florida. Students are instructed to create energy-saving activities using hands-on, real-world projects.

Some schools have reduced energy use by 5 to 15 percent during the first year of the program, saving thousands of dollars in utility expenses.

Although the numbers have not been compiled for schools in the District, Harrigan said she is hopeful.

"The trouble with energy use is it's hard to see," Harrigan said. "Principals have no idea how much they spend. If you can't measure it, you can't save it. We're anxious to see the savings."

During an introductory workshop in October, plans were developed for teaching the benefits of energy efficiency. Students formed "green teams," and members measured energy usage with tools provided through funding from the D.C. Public Service Commission's Natural Gas Trust Fund.

Horace Mann Elementary School in Northwest placed first at last week's ceremony for its overall audit report. Oyster-Adams Bilingual Elementary School was second. The report provided a comprehensive account of data collected by students and recommendations about energy use.

Sixth-graders at Mann collected data on temperature, light levels and wattage of appliances and calculated cost of electricity per classroom. Students alerted the principal of their findings and shared them during the school's Earth Day celebration.

"I figured out that most of the bathrooms in the school are way too bright," said sixth-grader Fernanda Garcia Ortiz in a letter to Principal Liz Whisnant. "I think we can take off some of the bulbs or replace them with energy efficient light bulbs. We really don't need that much light."

Capital City Public Charter School in Northwest was recognized for its success at integrating energy literacy into its curriculum. Students participated in the National Building Museum's "Be a Green Builder Program," tested light levels in classrooms and presented their findings to faculty and staff members on how much energy each classroom could save.

"The energy audit really got the kids invested in saving energy," said Sarah Riggen, a science and math teacher at Capital City. "They really bought into science. They've had a lot of challenges and have been engaged the whole time."

Key Elementary School in Northwest received an award for its outreach efforts, which included having a 45-minute "power down," when lights were turned off.

Harrigan said she hopes that students are "turned on by energy" and looks to build upon this year's launch by adding five to 10 schools in the District to next year's effort.

"We expect the students to be very effective advocates," Harrigan said. "They're effective communicators with their families. They have a knowledge base and are able to do more with it."

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