Empowering Learning Through
Natural, Human, and Building Ecologies

Robert J. Kobet, AIA, continued from previous section

To enrich the formal learning experience, we must continue to expand environmental education by promoting an equitable emphasis on each of the three ecologies: natural, human, and building. Existing designs that recognize natural systems and include features that make them visible and accessible should be recognized as pioneers in the march toward more comprehensive and effective learning environments. In addition to these valuable works, we need to do the following:

  1. Construct an environmental education approach that fuses the three ecologies. The basic constructs of each are alluded to in contemporary K-12 education, but the connections are not put forth in an integrated manner. Course competencies and evaluation metrics do not require a comprehensive understanding of the connections between them. Most state environmental education standards, in fact, do not formally recognize the built environment as an integral part of the core curriculum. Unless this is changed, the inclusion of built environmental issues and topics will be very long in coming.
  2. Recognize trends toward physical learning environments that are not located in traditional schools. Increased flexibility, changing technologies, performance based learning, etc., are all compatible with the goals of built environmental education and learning environments that are an extension of the curriculum. The tenets of sustainable design range from global to local concerns. Understanding the ecological footprint of a school, however the school is configured or defined, is as important and valid as basic energy concepts and recycling programs. Certainly there is more to learn from how and where a school obtains its resources and disposes of its waste than from collecting cans. Too often this study is relegated to environmental "clubs" and extracurricular activities. The K-12 learning sequence should be retooled to include the introduction and development of what the built environment is about.
  3. Include all stakeholders in the exploration of the physical environment as an extension of the curriculum. The lessons from the pioneer schools that include rainwater harvesting and sundials should serve as the foundation for a much more comprehensive and robust approach to using school facilities and community learning venues as an extension of the curriculum. Learning environments premised on teacher/student ability to rearrange space and equipment to suit a variety of learning or program needs should consider involving the same stakeholders in other potentially more meaningful ways. For instance, a well-designed computer network capable of such things as multi-tasking and individual and group learning configurations is a good starting place. A computer network that enables students in a cluster to monitor energy flows through the school or learning community in real time has a great potential for learning and instruction. Information gained from the simple tracking of energy, material, and nutrient flows through the school could be incorporated into everything from traditional math classes to the social sciences and economics. A school with static light shelves to optimize daylighting and control unwanted solar gain has value in explaining solar geometry and diurnal cycles. Allowing students to adjust exterior shading devices in response to seasonal changes has even greater value. Fabric awnings and other kinetic devices designed and constructed by students that define outdoor learning spaces and provide shelter have another, distinct set of learning opportunities.
  4. Expand the number and diversity of subjects benefiting from a comprehensive built environmental education curriculum. Vocational education programs focusing on building trades can easily include a broad band of information pertaining to green building practices. Building science and construction trade courses that include green design concepts are an obvious place to start. Facilities defined by architecture that illustrate simple machines and solar and lunar geometry can provide a stimulating environment for teaching math, physics, and the sciences. School grounds that include community or school gardens can impact food service, culinary classes, and biology courses in ways that include active student participation and contributions.
  5. Continue to seek ways that make visible how buildings function and how they are connected to the greater community and environment at large. Exposed structural systems carry specific opportunities. Color-coding truss members to indicate compression and tension can enhance the understanding of statics and the resolution of structural forces. Cable trays and access flooring, where appropriate, can serve to make visible how building services are distributed. Waste management can include on-site composting of organic materials and recycling programs run by student organizations. Implementing an allergy-free, nontoxic cleaning regimen holds a myriad of opportunities for a healthier learning environment and learning modules focusing on human ecology and physiology. Art programs that utilize non-toxic supplies and environmental themes, and chemistry classes that practice microchemistry can reduce negative impacts on the environment while increasing environmental awareness. Food service that promotes community-supported agriculture and local food purveyors can forge meaningful relationships with the community that students should know more about and become part of.

In order to accomplish the goals of moving toward an integrated approach to environmental education and architecture as an extension of the curriculum, several things must happen.

  1. School administrators must advocate for changes in the existing curriculum, course requirements, and evaluation methodologies. Agencies that set education standards must recognize the importance of understanding the built environment as a matter of social and economic responsibility. Those who teach or deliver education services should promote built environmental education through available channels: parent/teacher organizations, environmental education consortiums, conferences, and other public forums.
  2. Teacher education programs and ongoing education requirements that include material specific to an understanding of the built environment are essential. Teachers willing to adapt their teaching practices and course offerings to take advantage of architecture designed to be an extension of the curriculum are critical to the using of high performance green schools effectively. Teacher training and internship experiences should include built environment education.
  3. Foster partnerships in designing school facilities that enable a more thorough understanding and knowledge of course content, education standards and delivery methods. The design professional responsible for the physical facility is a partner in the development of the curriculum. The teacher, in turn, will benefit from a working knowledge of what design professionals do.
  4. Make architecture/curriculum development ideas a priority. Ideas discussed in charrette that never make it into the design are lost opportunities. Building features such as rain water harvesting, landscaping for energy conservation and wildlife habitat, the site as an arboretum, etc., are only valuable if they are fully integrated and implemented cost effectively.
  5. Forge partnerships that will enable the outcome of the design process to be as comprehensive as possible. Some of these may already be in place. With others, it may be necessary to educate the potential partner about the purposes of the project. For instance, building control suppliers may be willing to supply the software or programming skills to monitor energy systems in real time in a classroom setting. Conservancies or local gardening clubs may be willing to participate if they have the master plan explained in a way that satisfies their mission and yearly budget.

The goal of the integration of architecture and environmental education is to empower learners to make informed decisions about the built environment and its impact on themselves and the natural world. If we are to win the race between education and disaster, it is time we revise the current education paradigm to include a greater awareness and knowledge of the all of the environments we create. It is the only way we can preserve the one that sustains us.

"To enrich the formal learning experience, we must continue to expand environmental education by promoting an equitable emphasis on each of the three ecologies: natural, human, and building"

Learning with tools

"Understanding the ecological footprint of a school, however the school is configured or defined, is as important and valid as basic energy concepts and recycling programs. Certainly there is more to learn from how and where a school obtains its resources and disposes of its waste than from collecting cans."

Bluffsview School

Robert J. Kobet, AIA
President, Sustainaissance International

Robert J. Kobet, AIA is President of Sustainaissance International, (SI), a multidisciplinary architectural consulting practice focusing on sustainable design and development and environmental education. He has completed projects or is currently engaged in work in North America, Central Europe, Africa, Haiti and China.

Mr. Kobet's career combines 23 years of green design and architecture for the chemically sensitive with a parallel career in teaching. He is a member of CEFPI and is assisting several schools with various aspects of high performance green school design and the US Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED™) building rating system.

He is active in the US Green Building Council and the AIA National Committee on the Environment. In addition to his professional practice Mr. Kobet is a member of the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture where he teaches a studio and an elective in Sustainable Design and Development.

Mr. Kobet is the primary author of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Guidelines for Creating High Performance Green Building, and has written or contributed to scores of articles and book chapters on the subject of high performance architecture, sustainable design and built environmental education.

Robert Kobet, AIA
Sustainaissance International
5140 Friendship Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15224
(412) 661-5410


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designshare.com | January 2003