When we think about sustainability and elementary schools, we often think about sustainable-design practices and building materials, but seldom do we think about sustainability education for young students. HMC ArchLab, the building-science department of HMC Architects, and McKinley Elementary School in Santa Monica, Calif., are trying to change that. McKinley is one of the first schools in California to pilot the state’s Education and Environment curriculum, which is an environment-based curriculum that encourages responsible stewardship of the planet.

I am an architect and director of sustainable design at HMC Architects, as well as a professor at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in Pomona, Calif., with a singular focus on sustainability. I’m also the father of a McKinley student. In April 2011, I began thinking that it was only natural to approach my son’s school about developing a sustainability program, and a couple of months later, I was able to secure a community-project grant from my firm's Design Futures Foundation, to develop three activity-based workshops covering water, energy, and waste. The goal was to teach McKinley Elementary’s third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students about the challenges facing the environment and the role that we can play in promoting sustainable living.

The project began in July 2011 when my HMC ArchLab colleagues Eera Babitwale and Sandy Kate and I met with McKinley Elementary teachers and administrators. We designed curriculum for three 90-minute workshops that would be offered over three days. Each workshop was held three times: once for the third-grade students, once for the fourth-grade students, and once for the fifth-grade students. Each session held about 85 students, and each workshop included a grade-specific interactive lesson with videos and hands-on group activities to reinforce concepts explained in the lesson.

Looking to share the knowledge with even more students, we also looked at the option of Skyping in another school in the district or in another state or country. I know a parent in Marcaibo, Venezuela, who has a child of a similar age, and as a result, we shared the lessons via Skype, with Venezuelan students. This opportunity to connect with students half a world away demonstrated to all of the students—at McKinley and in Marcaibo—how global the world’s environmental issues are.

The first workshop, focusing on water, included an interactive presentation on the world’s limited natural resources to the three groups of students. The team then engaged the students in smaller groups for a hands-on activity, in which they built an aquifer and then added blueberry juice to simulate contaminants to the ground, which was represented by white playground sand. Seeing how the contaminants seeped into water brought to life a lively conversation among the students about the hazards of polluting the water system.

In the second workshop, on energy, the students learned about buildings’ effect on the climate and how better building design and renewable energy can reduce climate change. I invited my Cal Poly students to attend and demonstrate solar cookers that they had recently built and tested in one of my classes. The McKinley students’ curiosity and excitement was hard to contain and their appreciation was priceless.

The final workshop, on waste, highlighted the importance of reducing waste to landfills. The students played a waste-busters game in which they received points for reusing, recycling, sharing, or composting materials.

I have taught undergraduate and graduate students in many parts of the world, but few occasions have been as rewarding as this one for elementary school students. The children were excited to learn about ways in which they can protect the planet and build a better future.

With the workshops complete, our HMC team now plans to publish a book about the experience to share with other schools, faculty, parents, and communities in the hopes that they can incorporate these ideas into their own educational programs and curriculums. In addition, the technology support team of the Santa Monica Malibu United School District invited us to record the workshops in a TV studio and the Los Angeles United School District has plans to broadcast the programs to multiple schools in early May 2012. It is my hope that teaching children about sustainability will not only resonate with them, but also with their parents, for the rest of their lives.

Pablo La Roche is director of sustainable design at HMC Architects. To learn more about HMC ArchLab’s work with McKinley Elementary, visit blog.hmcarchitects.com/sustainability-workshops-at-mckinley-elementary-school.