Erin Sandlin, Policy Intern

Schools across the nation are “going green” by implementing carbon footprint reducing techniques such as incorporating solar power and instituting recycling and composting efforts. But do these actions really contribute to the greening of a school? What constitutes sustainable development?

Dr. Jean Kelso Sandlin, a professor at California Lutheran University and my mother, communicates in her paper, “Why ‘Greening’ the Campus has not Included the Classroom: The Challenges of Pedagogical Initiatives for Sustainability in Higher Education,” that educational institutions have an obligation to bring this sustainable development into the classroom, where it can play a role in producing the next generation of environmental stewards.

A campus sustainability tour at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
A campus sustainability tour at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

As a politics student at the Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C., I am told we are the next generation of leaders and policymakers; however, like most universities, we do not have a requirement to learn about the environment that we use — and abuse — every day. Only until I declared a minor in sustainability was I exposed to sustainability education. The two classes that were the most influential were both architecture courses. I learned passive building strategies for energy conservation, such as planting trees to protect building facades from harsh winds or providing shade to reduce air conditioning costs.

CUA is one of 10 universities in the world to offer LEEDlab, a course where architecture students — and one adventurous politics student! — are taught to meet current market needs in their profession while employing multiple synergistic effects of sustainability within the university. This year, our class worked to LEED certify our university campus. As the university with the largest campus grounds in Washington, D.C., we are fortunate to have an incredible tree canopy. Throughout the duration of the course, we learned the benefits of our trees on campus, facilitated educational initiatives to promote greater awareness of the advantages of trees, and planned future tree plantings with organizations such as local urban forestry nonprofit, Casey Trees.

American Forests continues to provide and support educational programs to students about the importance of our nation’s city trees. With our help, schools and communities are involved in beneficial tree-planting programs and educational opportunities. Our Community ReLeaf program aims to bring attention to the value of urban forests in cities such as Detroit, Atlanta, and right here in Washington, D.C. We know that environmental and sustainable education will create a generation that considers the environment when making future decisions.

It is in our best interest to provide students with the resources to improve environmental literacy through hands-on education. It is not enough to “green” a school by implementing top-down policies that do not involve student participation. Incorporating environmental education in the classroom is a critical part of sustainable development, and with student integration comes the success of the student and the institution. Sustainability should not be reserved for specialized programs and majors; it should be integrated within an educational institution’s foundation, which begins in the classroom.

To help make outdoor education a priority, urge your Congressional representatives to support the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act, which aims to enhance the physical, emotional and mental health of children across the United States.