healthy schools

The Last Year of an Environmental Educator’s Career: Reflections on Sustainability

Introduction by Kathleen L. Fenton

I’m fortunate to manage EPA Region 7’s Environmental Education Program. I get to meet folks like Dr. Michael Hotz, who work tirelessly to ensure today’s students understand, value and enjoy learning. Dr. Hotz is one of those exceptional teachers who students remember long after they’ve graduated, an educator who makes a lasting impression. Most importantly, he’s influenced students to realize that science, technology, engineering and math are subjects they can understand and have fun doing, while actually learning – and it’s knowledge they can keep and use for years to come.

Dr. Hotz is a model teacher and representative of many fine teachers across the Heartland. I had the honor of watching him receive his Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators. I wish him well on his career’s final year, and hope the teaching profession can employ more teachers like him. Thank you, Dr. Hotz, for an impressive 31-year run!

By Dr. Michael Hotz

As I begin the last of 31 years of teaching young people, I reflect on sustainability. Through the last 19 years in the Kansas City, Kan., Public School District, I’ve had the opportunity to create a school garden/outdoor classroom, conduct long-term watershed studies, create an aquaponic system where tilapia grow and greenhouse plants are nourished, and conduct energy audits to save more than $100,000 in utility costs.

Dr. Hotz and his wife, Catherine, at PIAEE award ceremony

Dr. Hotz and his wife, Catherine, at PIAEE award ceremony

It’s been a great experience, and I have an EPA employee to thank for, as she says, “planting the seed of ideas.” Roberta Vogel-Luetung sat with me as we brainstormed ideas over 15 years ago at an in-service meeting conducted by EPA. We discussed how an empty, unused courtyard at Wyandotte High School could be used for teaching environmental content. Since that meeting, the courtyard has been turned into a school garden and outdoor classroom with 20 raised beds, an automated sprinkler system, all-weather walkways, flower gardens, a water feature, and composting facilities.

Students were challenged and stepped up to the task of designing, building, and financing this area, which they also help plant and maintain. These students, as well as others, have reaped the fruits of their labors. Joanne Postawait has taken over the responsibility of planting and harvesting this area, while I continue to help with its hardscape maintenance.

School garden/outdoor classroom

School garden/outdoor classroom

The EPA video “After the Storm” inspired me to create a “challenge-based” learning experience for the Small Learning Community in which I teach at Wyandotte High School. Through collaboration with my fellow educators Ms. Hornberger (Math), Mr. Willard (English), and Mr. Zak (Engineering), we created a long-term project around Big Eleven Lake in Kansas City, Kan.

Each year, students study their watershed in my science classes. We bring the studies down to the local level of what the students can do themselves to help the watershed. They’ve been taught how to conduct water testing, and then go into the field and test Big Eleven Lake, Kaw Point (at the convergence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers), and other lakes in the area. Comparisons are made and reported to the Kansas Health Department. All of the curriculums are tied into this experience. Standardized test scores demonstrate that significant gains have been made because of this program.

I was also a member of the EPA Urban Lake Testing Group where EPA provided water testing techniques and equipment, and samples were sent to EPA laboratories for analysis. I was then able to train residents of the Big Eleven Lake area, who belong to the Struggler’s Hill/Roots Neighborhood Association, to do the water testing. These neighborhood association members were helpful in sharing their lives and experiences around the lake, and the EPA employees were just as helpful with the testing and field work.

Aquaponics system

Aquaponic system

We developed a pilot aquaponics program where tilapia are grown. The water from these tanks is sent to trays where plants are grown, establishing a symbiotic relationship between the fish and plants. Wastes from the tilapia nourish tomatoes, herbs, squash, and other plants in our greenhouse. This type of organic, non-polluting growing system is 10 times more efficient than traditional methods and saves water.

I initiated energy audits and plans to save on utility costs. Students use testing equipment to monitor lights, electricity, and temperature and then develop plans to reduce usage. More than $100,000 was saved in a single year. A recycling program also is in place, which is operated by our Environmental Club and is part of the Green Schools Program of the Kansas Association for Conservation and Environmental Education.

Aquaponic system

Aquaponic system

These programs helped me to be recognized as a proud winner of the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators (PIAEE). EPA and its employees have been instrumental in the development and teaching of these programs.

I am honored that my former student and 2015 graduate, Karina Macias Leyva, wrote the following in her letter of recommendation for the award: “When Dr. Hotz teaches anything that is part of the environmental education field, even with the smallest projects, he inspires students to gain awareness of their environment and acquire knowledge, skills, values, experiences and also determination, which will enable students to act individually and collectively that will lead to solving present and future environmental problems.”

I’m currently working with Towson University, investigating how environmental education happens in and out of the classroom and what impacts student understanding and attitudes about the environment and environmental science.

As I plan for this final year of teaching, my major concern is sustaining these programs. I’m training and encouraging other teachers at Wyandotte High School to keep them going. Our environmental future depends upon the teaching of young minds here in the Heartland and across the nation.

I have enjoyed and am thankful for the relationships that have been made with EPA, and I look forward to working with all of you at EPA during this final year.

About the Introducer: Kathleen Fenton has worked with communities on environmental health issues, environmental education grants, and Healthy Schools projects for over 20 years.

About the Author: Dr. Michael Hotz has been a teacher at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kan., for the past 19 years, as part of his 31-year teaching career. He was awarded the PIAEE in 2015.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Indoor Air Quality in Schools – Concerns and Need for Low-Cost Solutions

By Richard Corsi

University of Texas at Austin IAQ Research Team Goes Back to High School.  From left to right: Associate Professor Atila Novoselac, researcher Sarah Wu, Professor Kerry Kinney, Professor Richard Corsi, and Research Engineer Neil Crain.

University of Texas at Austin Research Team Goes Back to High School. From left to right: Associate Professor Atila Novoselac, Researcher Sarah Wu, Professor Kerry Kinney, Professor Richard Corsi, and Research Engineer Neil Crain.

I am excited to be directing a new multi-year U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant related to Healthy Schools titled, Healthy High School PRIDE (Partnership in Research on InDoor Environments). My team is focusing on high schools, a relatively under-studied school environment with numerous data gaps.

Evidence has mounted regarding the contributions of poor indoor air quality and inadequate classroom ventilation toward student illnesses, absenteeism, and decreases in academic performance. Teachers are also affected, with higher rates of work-related upper-respiratory problems compared to the rest of the working population. Importantly, this problem has not been improving and there is a growing base of literature that suggests that we are failing our children in an environment that is critical to both their health and future success.

Our team  will complete detailed studies of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system performance and air flow characteristics in classrooms, a topic of great importance with respect to student health, comfort, and performance, and one that is often oversimplified. We will characterize HVAC system performance and increase knowledge of how HVAC operation affects pollutant migration through both occupied and hidden spaces of buildings that can be sources of pollution.

Most homeowners, businesses, and school districts dispose of their used HVAC filters in the trash bin and they are ultimately buried in landfills.  Our team sees them as valuable biological samplers.  We will collect used HVAC filters from high schools and perform analyses to characterize microorganisms that were in classroom air.

My students and I have been exploring oxygen-containing compounds that I hypothesize are in-part responsible for upper airway irritations that can distract students in classroom environments. These compounds are often overlooked in studies of indoor air quality in schools, and their abundance and sources will be central to our study of high schools.

Most school districts have budget constraints that preclude an ability to significantly improve indoor environmental conditions in classrooms.  I am excited that our team will also test low-cost engineering solutions to indoor environmental quality issues in participating schools.   Our findings should be of value to both participating schools, and hopefully school districts across the country.

Our research will also be a learning experience. High school students will complete workshops related to indoor environmental quality and team-based projects on indoor air quality at the University of Texas at Austin.  And Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) teachers at our participating high schools will use our study as examples for discussions in their classrooms related to indoor environmental science and engineering, and data analysis and visualization methods.

It actually feels great to be going back to high school!

About the Author: Richard L. Corsi is the E.C.H. Bantel Professor for Professional Practice and Chair of the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.  He teaches courses related to fluid mechanics and indoor air quality, and has completed extensive research related to the sources, chemistry, and passive control of indoor air pollution.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Make Healthy Schools Day April 8 A Day of Action!

Providing every child with a quality education is a high priority. Of course we want our kids to learn, grow, and be successful. But the reality is that many schools are older buildings with indoor air quality problems that can be fixed, sometimes with easy to use EPA tools that can help student performance at the same time. One in 10 school-age kids have asthma and some schools can have issues with mold, radon and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).) The evidence shows that health and test scores can improve if more schools put in place EPA’s Tools for Schools, which includes a Framework for Effective School Indoor Air Quality Management.

In fact, last week I attended the National Green Schools Conference where I talked with Dave Hill from Blue Valley School District in Kansas. He told me how their students have shown dramatic increases in math and reading test scores over the 12 years using these tools. I also heard from other local and state leaders about how more schools should use these and other EPA tools to improve children’s health, prevent pollution, cut carbon pollution, save energy, reduce pesticide use, and improve test scores! More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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IAQ Management: Essential for a Healthy School Environment

By Richard Middleton

During my tenure as the superintendent of the North East Independent School District in San Antonio, TX, I’ve had one goal in mind: provide the best, most nurturing learning environments to my students that I possibly can. And after 21 years of doing just that, I can tell you that this simply cannot be done without addressing indoor air quality (IAQ).

IAQ is one of those issues that can too easily be pushed aside and minimized by one of many other concerns that school districts have. But, in my opinion, it’s one of the most important things that a school district can do to ensure that their students are healthy, learning and thriving – and that the teachers are too! And just a few, simple changes in maintenance practices can make a huge difference.

For example, in our district we were bogged down by clutter. We had cluttered classrooms and storage areas full of items that were just collecting dust. It was so bad that our cleaning crews couldn’t even navigate through the classrooms around the clutter to properly clean! By simply eliminating the clutter and removing carpeting in classrooms and hallways and following EPA’s IAQ Tools for Schools Program guidance we improved IAQ and saw dramatic decreases in absenteeism and visits to the school nurse that have been sustained over time. It didn’t take much – but it did take making a commitment to improving IAQ and sticking to it.

And for those school districts out there that don’t feel like they have the expertise or resources to begin the process of developing an IAQ management plan, the IAQ Tools for Schools Program is there to help you every step of the way. It provides help with IAQ planning and management tools and connects you with peers and mentors so you can learn from each other’s experiences. In particular, I would encourage school districts at the beginning of the IAQ management process to attend the 2011 IAQ Tools for Schools National Symposium. It’s an invaluable resource and one of the best things that we did while developing our IAQ management program.

About the Author: Richard Middleton has devoted his career to the education and betterment of children. For the past 21 years he has served as the superintendent of the North East Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas. North East Independent School District is a recipient of EPA’s IAQ Tools for Schools National Excellence Award, which is presented to school districts that have shown exceptional commitment to good IAQ management in schools.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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