The Cool School Challenge engages schools from all across the country in strategies to reduce CO2 emissions

CoolSchool-2by Katie Fleming, Rhonda Hunter & Kimberly Cline

Extreme weather events, rising sea levels, melting glaciers – oh my!  While climate change is an overwhelming issue, there is certainly hope, especially in the collective power of individual actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the underlying principle of the Cool School Challenge, an innovative climate education program that motivates students, teachers and school districts to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions school-wide. At the heart of the program is the philosophy that big changes start with small steps – and taken together, simple individual actions create a world of difference. Cumulatively, we CAN reduce our carbon footprint and it’s already happening!

The Cool School Challenge engages schools from all across the country in strategies to reduce CO2 emissions by 2,000 pounds or more per classroom, per school year. By conducting audits of classroom energy, solid waste, and transportation behaviors, students identify opportunities to improve efficiency, reduce waste and shrink their carbon impact. Three years into the program, the collective small steps of nearly 100 schools in Washington State and beyond are indeed reaping powerful results.  Participating schools have reported nearly 2 million pounds of CO2 reductions.

“The Challenge was an opportunity to decrease our carbon footprint by making small changes like turning off lights and power strips.” said Jenessa, a 12th grade student from Nooksack Valley High School in Everson, WA.  “Not only did the students learn from this experience but even teachers confessed they had no idea these changes could make a difference.”  The simple actions in the Cool School Challenge all add up to a big difference.


Mike Town, Redmond High School science teacher

The original concept for the Cool School Challenge was incubated in Mike Town’s environmental science class at Redmond High School, in Washington State.  Inspired by the U.S. Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, Mr. Town’s motivated students decided to assess their schools’ contribution to climate change.  This led to bigger thinking: If cities can challenge each other, schools can too.  In its first year, Redmond saved 76 tons of CO2.  In addition, they saved $22,500 on utility bills during the first two years of the program.

Students are catching on that reducing CO2 emissions not only helps protect the planet, but can also protect the school’s bottom line. Strategies that reduce waste, curb consumption, and improve efficiency can help schools save money on utility bills.  Dollar savings certainly speak loud and clear to administrators during tough budget times.   Megan and Amanda, two students at Mountlake Terrace High School in Mountlake Terrace, WA formed their senior culminating project around this idea.  “My overall project goal was to show that you can save money by doing simple things around classrooms, not by cutting school programs.  Last year, they were proposing to cut 5th grade band and other music programs.  I’ve been in band since 5th grade and I think it’s really beneficial to the community.  So I was thinking of an alternative way to save money other than cutting programs and I heard about this program (Cool School Challenge) through my Spanish teacher and I thought it would be a good way to save money,” said Megan.  And so they did! At the end of the school year, five classrooms reported estimated savings of $325. If you multiply that by the hundreds of classrooms in a district, the dollars could really add up.

The program has now expanded to schools throughout Washington State as well as to Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New York, Oregon, California and even the United Arab Emirates.

Teachers Benefit

Teachers can cover several bases with Cool School Challenge.  It’s solid inquiry-based learning, with interdisciplinary real-world applications in science, math, and social studies.  Activities are also aligned to national science standards.  Language arts and graphics can also be valuable elements. Teachers can encourage student leadership skills as the students take action.

Or students can take the initiative to engage their teachers. After school programs and environmental clubs can also be a good place to start the process.

“Students really see an impact that they can have too in using scrap paper or having teachers to turn off lights.  They can apply those pieces to their own lives and then that can make an impact at home later.” – Charlotte Plog, Science Teacher, Nooksack Valley High School

“It puts it out in front of everybody that everyone can do their little part and help make big changes by doing their own little part in their own little space.  I think that’s been the biggest learning for me.”– Jim Ramerman, Math Teacher, Nooksack Valley High School

Students Benefit

Students benefit from real-world applications of science and math as they make a positive impact on the most significant environmental threat of our time.  They explore systems thinking, work collaboratively in teams, and gain a sense of empowerment from the very real progress they make.  Students have the unusual opportunity to be respected as knowledgeable, contributing citizens now, not later when they ‘grow up.’

They may even gain insights into potential ‘green jobs’ and careers in the new economy.  Some high school students expand their new skills into the local community to assist businesses and nearby offices. The students’ experience with these audits translates into life-long awareness of the effects of the energy, waste and transportation choices they make.

CoolSchool-1“It’s really fun and it does a lot to help save the environment,” said a 4th grader from Artondale Elementary in Gig Harbor, WA.

“Before the Cool School Challenge I had no interest in the environment.  I wanted to probably go into teaching.  But now I’m probably going to go into environmental sciences for studying.  I want to study abroad and see what other countries are doing.  I’m excited,” said Amanda, a 12th grade student at Mountlake High School in Mountlake Terrace, WA.

“I found myself applying what I learned in the Cool School Challenge to everyday life.  In my house I’m like ‘this doesn’t need to be on.’  In my work I turn off the computer monitors. It started out I wanted to save energy costs, but in doing that I’m also saving carbon dioxide emissions.  Doing that is reducing global warming which is effecting the whole world.  So I’m a lot more aware of what I’m doing in life.” Megan, 12the grader, Mountlake Terrace High School

“I would definitely recommend the Cool School Challenge.  I think it’s a good way for students to take the initiative.” –Kelli Finet, 12th grader, Nooksack Valley High School

As students mobilize at their schools, a new generation of leaders will grow to actively participate in the global transformation needed to help slow climate change and grow a new green economy.

Go to to learn more about the program and how to get your school involved.

The Cool School Challenge is a program of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. Program partners include Washington Department of Ecology, Northwest Clean Air Agency and RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. Program materials include an online Classroom Toolkit, Classroom Carbon Calculator, promotional tools for schools, and regional teacher training workshops to introduce the program into schools.