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Do green schools make for better learning environments? Are green schools healthier for children and teachers? Do green, healthy schools support higher student test scores? Researchers at Colorado State University plan to find out. Jennifer Cross, a professor of sociology, has received a four-year, $1 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to analyze the effects of green school buildings on student health and performance.
Cross is leading an interdisciplinary team that includes researchers from CSU’s Institute for the Built Environment (IBE), Department of Sociology, Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences, and Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. They will work with the Poudre and St. Vrain Valley school districts to consider many different variables when evaluating the effects of green schools.
Cross, who is the director of research for IBE and co-director of the Center for Energy and Behavior, will be conducting surveys with students and teachers to measure wellbeing and determine their satisfaction with the building.
“One of the goals of the green school movement is to make buildings healthier places for students,” Cross said. “So far, there have been only a few studies to really assess the impact of buildings on student health, and none of them are longitudinal.”
Cross, who is based in CSU’s College of Liberal Arts, will also work with the districts to supply resources and support to teachers leading science labs with students, bringing the research full circle. She said the team will compare factors like student grades, test scores and disciplinary records to see if students in green schools perform at higher levels.
“We’ll be looking to see what patterns we find in the data,” Cross said. “For instance, certain lighting creates a different environment, and it affects the learning that goes on there.”
Brian Dunbar, executive director of IBE, professor emeritus at CSU, and one of the researchers on the grant, says anecdotal evidence has illustrated the positive effects of healthy, green schools.
“If we are able to show a significant link between healthy school environments and student performance,” Dunbar said, “schools and districts across the nation and the world will come to understand the need for properly day-lit, comfortable schools constructed with healthy materials and maintained with green cleaning techniques.”
Dunbar will lead a team of CSU graduate students to measure the quality of buildings in the Poudre and St. Vrain Valley school districts by monitoring temperature, acoustics, the amount of natural light and the quality of the HVAC systems.
To evaluate how the school building design affects the air quality in classrooms, Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences professors Sheryl Magzamen and Stephen Reynolds will be testing classroom air samples for the presence of toxins, pollutants and allergens, and linking these measures of exposure to respiratory and other health outcomes for students and teachers.
“Among all childhood chronic diseases, asthma is the number one cause of school absence,” said Magzamen. “We know that there is a link between students’ health and their school performance. One of our research goals is to understand if green schools are associated with better educational outcomes due to fewer missed days of school, headaches, fatigue or other health issues that interfere with learning.”
Additionally, environmental economists Dale Manning and Jordan Suter will look at how the green retrofits influence energy, water, waste, operating costs and educational outcomes to make a holistic case: If districts have the funds to improve their schools, where do they get the most bang for their buck?
“The multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary perspective is very critical for a study such as this,” said Stephanie Barr, research associate and projects manager for IBE. “If health or energy reduction is the only angle being evaluated in green schools, without also considering the education or socioeconomic context, the study results will not be as robust. This is where we see IBE’s role in university research — bringing together those faculty that might not have the opportunity to work together, and supporting them to answer these multi-faceted questions.”
Northern Colorado is the ideal spot for this research because it is viewed as a leader in green school implementation, making this study a natural fit. There is a large diversity of older traditional schools, retrofitted or renovated schools, and new green schools. Researchers will be able to observe students’ transition between different building types over the course of three school years, focusing on students in fifth grade through 10th grade. All the data on student performance, health and environmental measures will be evaluated in order to understand the impact of the physical environment.
The idea for the research project evolved from a collaborative group called the Sustainable Strategies Team, consisting of representatives from the Poudre School District, the St. Vrain Valley School District, the City of Fort Collins Utilities and IBE, which is based in CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences. The group meets each month to discuss school district sustainability topics.
“When we brought this research opportunity to the SST group they were really on board. This project will answer school environment questions we all have,” Barr said. “It’s not just CSU coming in and doing a study, it’s partnering with the city and school districts to answer fundamental questions that will inform school design and ultimately benefit students in our community and across the nation.”