STEVENSVILLE – Last spring two ducks landed in a pond in the courtyard of Matapeake Elementary School. The ducks mated and soon 10 ducklings were waddling all over the courtyard.
“The kids watched the ducklings hatch and grow, and everyday they would look for them,” said Arlene Reading, test coordinator and teacher trainer at the school, which is on Kent Island.
The courtyard is at the center of a newly built energy-efficient school. The design of the school seeks to incorporate the natural environment – with a pond in the middle of the courtyard and another, larger, outdoor storm-water-drainage pond. The larger pond collects storm water and in this way helps put water back into the soil. Queen Anne’s County built its elementary school “green” to reduce energy costs, but hopes that the aspects of the building’s design help the students learn more about taking care of the environment and the bay. “The goal is to help students become good stewards of the environment and the bay before they start getting into harmful practices as adults,” said Nancy Crim, a teacher at the school who heads up most of the environmental projects. A green school is a loosely defined term ranging from schools that are energy-efficient to those that have the U.S. Green Building Council’s stamp of approval given after a rigorous certification process. But certification does not entitle schools to funds or deter districts from constructing buildings with green amenities such as geothermal heating or clerestory windows that are placed higher to allow more sunlight. The school opened in January 2004 and uses a geothermal heating system, clerestory windows and automatic censors on lights, toilets and faucets to reduce the amount of energy consumption. The energy savings had a steeper initial price. The geothermal unit costs $1.3 million compared to the traditional heating system that costs $1.1 million for a school the same size. The construction program manager for the school, Andrew Onukwubiri, said that the school saves in energy costs each year and the district hopes to make up the difference in the next five to 10 years. This may be well within reach given that the school district saved $21,760 in heating costs for the 2004-2005 school year. That figure does not include the cost of fossil fuel that is required for conventional heating units. The geothermal heating unit uses the earth’s constant temperature of about 55 degrees to warm a building in the winter or cool it in the summer. In the winter, water circulates through pipes that are about 300 feet underground to a heat pump in the building. Inside the heat pump a refrigerant absorbs the heat from the water, and a compressor heats up the refrigerant even more. A fan blows air over a coil filled with the refrigerant. The heat pump then blows the air into the classroom. In the summer the process reverses to cool the building. The heat is transferred from the air in the classroom to the refrigerant in the heat pump to the water in the pipes and then to the earth. The county is building a middle school next to Matapeake Elementary in the same manner – joining the trend of school districts such as Montgomery County, St. Mary’s County and Harford County that are building or planning to build energy-efficient schools. There are 24 schools in the state that either have, are planning or in construction with a geothermal heating unit. Most of the schools are on the Lower Eastern Shore and the trend is spreading west, said David Lever, executive director of the state public school construction program. But the green trend does not end with the energy-efficiency of the school. Teachers at Matapeake encourage students to be good stewards of the environment at an early age.
Jacob Tyszka, an eight-year-old third grader who is a member of the school’s recycling club, has learned this lesson.
Once a week, Jacob goes to every classroom and cleans out the recycling bins, picking up bottles, cans and separating the white from the colored paper – all before the bell rings at 8:15 a.m.
“It’s pretty fun, get to hang out with my friends in recycling club,” Jacob said. “I joined the recycling club because I’m helping the environment and helping the school get more money to buy more stuff for learning.”
The money that the recycling club collects goes to the school’s environmental projects such a bay grass project, and meadow and wetlands restoration projects.
In March, Crim, plans to have her students grow grasses to be placed back into the bay as part of a voluntary program through the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The grasses help filter pollutants, and provide habitats for underwater animals such as crabs.
Crim is also applying for a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, an organization that provides grants to bay restoration projects, to help pay for the meadow and wetland restoration project.
If the school receives the grant, Crim plans to transform the outdoor gazebo area into a wildflower meadow this spring – where students plant native grasses such as Indian, big blue-stem and switchgrass and flowers like black-eyed Susans, New England asters, and ox eye sunflowers. The students will install bluebird boxes in the meadow, or habitats that attract the dwindling population of bluebirds. For the wetlands project students might plant blue flag, pickerel weed, and broad-leaved cattails to create a natural habitat for wildlife and plants in the storm-water-drainage pond. Crim plans to begin this project next school year. Crim said that the students are aware of the environment, but that parents have to teach them at home as well. “I think children in general have a good awareness of what you teach them, but parents don’t always practice it.”