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Earth Day: Why the quality of educational environments affects the quality of learning inside them

Earth Day as we know it today was launched in 1970 through teach-ins all over the US – educational forums designed to inform people from all walks of life of the environmental degradation around them. This year’s Earth Day (which is held tomorrow) harks back to those days, with the theme of climate and environmental literacy.

Education is key to understanding the effect humans are having on the planet. But the buildings in which we educate our children also have a measurable impact on the health and sustainability of those generations. By the time a child graduates, they have spent approximately 15,600 hours in a school – and that time spent in a building, often with mold, poor ventilation, uncomfortable temperatures and inadequate lighting, is certain to have an influence on students’ success. Indeed, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that up to 60 per cent of schools have poor indoor environmental quality (IEQ) and work by Harvard University supported by United Technologies Corporation has shown poor IAQ leads to poor cognitive ability and reasoning.


What the research shows

A host of factors have been used to detail the impacts of a school on students’ health and performance. These include indoor air quality and thermal comfort, two of eight features that WorldGBC measures in greener and healthier buildings. Both these measures can affect the school learning environment.

For indoor air quality, low ventilation rates are often linked to poor air quality and high CO2 levels:

  • A Texas study showed that CO2 concentrations exceeded 1000 parts per million (ppm) in 66 per cent of classrooms and surpassed 3000 ppm in 21 per cent of classrooms*
  • A more recent study showed that low ventilation rates lead to more days of absence from school, because of respiratory infections

Multiple studies have shown that when steps to mitigate poor indoor air quality are taken, students’ academic performance improves.

  • Each 1-Litre/second/person increase in ventilation rate was associated with an expected increase of 2.9% and 2.7% in math and reading scores, respectively.

When it comes to thermal comfort, the level of comfort and satisfaction people experience due to temperature and humidity (i.e. too hot or too cold):

  • children are more vulnerable to the effects of heat stress and appear more uncomfortable at higher temperatures than those of adults, one study found.

Thermal comfort also has a direct relation to academic performance, specifically test scores:

  • A study examining high-stakes exam test scores in 75,000 high school students in New York City, found that for every increase of 1°F, test scores fell by 0.2 per cent; for the average student, the likelihood of failing an exam taken on a 90°F day versus a 75°F day would be 12.3 per cent higher.


Climate change may impact student performance

Higher temperatures not only increase levels of ozone and other air pollutants that exacerbate cardiovascular and respiratory illness, but they can also increase levels of pollen and airborne allergens that aggravate asthmatic symptoms and, as a result, directly affect student performance, according to research. With more extreme weather events occurring as a result of our changing climate, this could be detrimental to learning outcomes.


Better buildings, better learning

But what does this all have to do with green buildings? Green buildings have good indoor air quality and thermal comfort compared to non-green certified buildings. Studies have proven that well ventilated, green-certified buildings have a measurable positive impact on indoor air quality and thermal health, leading to better cognitive ability, sleep quality, and a host of other measures. The work showed that when you build green, you receive health and productivity benefits.

While this piece of work didn’t specifically examine schools, there’s no reason to believe the results aren’t applicable: it’s reasonably safe to assume that if you build a high performing green school, you are likely to get more productive and healthy students.

In fact, there are concrete examples of when providing better educational buildings delivers clear benefits:

  • When Ohio schools invested $10 billion from a statewide capital subsidy for facility improvements, the percentage of students achieving test score proficiency increased 8–9 per cent in the two years after construction and occupancy of the new and renovated buildings
  • In New Haven, Connecticut, a $1.4 billion investment in a poor urban school district transformed its 50-year-old buildings through targeted improvements to HVAC systems and the inclusion of natural lighting. Subsequently, improvements observed in students’ reading scores were comparable to the benefits gained from attending a high-performance charter school.

Research from the University of Missouri takes this further, showing that students who go to school in buildings that are designed to be green, actually exhibit higher levels of knowledge about energy efficiency and environmentally friendly building practices.

The research suggests that by being exposed to innovative design every day, when coupled with a sustainable culture fostered by teachers, students will learn about the importance of green buildings.

“Anything educators can do to utilise existing space can help their students’ green building literacy. We all use buildings every day. Our children will soon be the people buying and constructing homes, offices and other buildings. Learning and translating that knowledge into future green building design will play a huge part in solving our environmental problems,” concludes Laura Cole, an assistant professor of architectural studies in the MU College of Human Environmental Sciences.

And that’s the take-home message of Earth Day. Educating people about the environment empowers them with knowledge and inspires them to take action to protect it.

Colin Powell is Project Manager for Better Places for People at WorldGBC


*Allen et al. (2016) says CO2 levels should be kept below 1000 ppm for long-term exposure.