As Nashville continues its efforts to greenify the Music City, Urban Green Lab’s Sustainable Classrooms program is ten steps ahead of the game.

Sustainable Classrooms is an academic initiative aimed at improving education around solid waste and sustainable living practices in Nashville schools – but for this program, it’s the teachers who have become the students.

“The Sustainable Classrooms program is teaching and empowering educators to expand sustainability education from the top down,” says Diana Andrew, program manager for the initiative.

Sustainable Classrooms Program Manager Diana Andrews

Diana Andrew, Program Manager,
Sustainable Classrooms

Andrew, a former board member of Urban Green Lab who earned her Masters in Sustainability Practices, says the program is designed to make sustainability “attainable and simple,” for teachers and students alike. Unlike traditional environmental education which centers around ecosystems, biodiversity and other common science class staples, the topic of sustainability is a different approach to green thinking, says Andrew.

“Sustainability education focuses on how we create processes and live our lives in order to preserve people and the Earth together. We’re trying to get people to think a little bit differently about the subject – it has to be more well-rounded than just our impact on the environment.”

One of the main goals of the program is to improve sustainability literacy, which Urban Green Lab defines as “a basic understanding of how to live in a way that preserves our society, economy and environment so we can continue to use resources in the future.”

“We want students to learn how to balance choices,” Andrew continues. “Sometimes environmentalism can be a little intimidating and hard to grasp, especially when we think about trying to live a perfectly sustainable life. What Urban Green Lab teaches is that you don’t have to be perfect – you just have to be aware of how your actions impact the world and try to make choices for a more balanced lifestyle.”

While Urban Green Lab has had tremendous success with auxillary educational programs like their interactive Mobile Sustainability Laboratory, they also understand the importance of bringing sustainability lessons into the traditional classroom setting. “Sustainability is a life-long skill that can impact almost every area of your life,” Andrew says. “We really want to introduce this topic to students in middle school by allowing teachers to bring it into their classrooms.”

Green Lab Mobile Lab Teaching Students About Sustainability

Even before Sustainable Classrooms, Urban Green Lab’s innovative Mobile Lab program made them popular with green-minded Nashville educators.

But for green-minded educators, fitting sustainability topics into packed curriculums can prove difficult. Teachers are already tasked with a mountain of educational requirements, leaving little room for a subject that’s often considered “supplementary,” according to Andrew.

“When we did our first baseline surveys, we found that teachers were interested in the topic, but didn’t have the resources, curriculums or the time to actually implement it,” Andrew explains. “That’s why a big goal with developing this curriculum was to create something that’s not just ‘extra’ – something teachers can actually plug into their unit planning and that fits well into those educational standards.”

The curriculum covers seven main topics: Introduction to Sustainability, Energy, Water, Food, Solid Waste, Transportation and Air Quality.

The first lesson, Introduction to Sustainability, encourages students to think about the resources humans need to succeed and to draw concept maps illustrating how they’re connected – for instance, a person’s need for income is tied to their need for transportation, which might require gas or electricity use. Then, students are asked to consider the impact those resources have on society and the economy as a whole as they dive into in-depth lessons on each one.

The plug-and-play initiative couldn’t come at a better time, as this year Tennessee implements Next Generation Science Standards, a new set of interdisciplinary educational requirements for science courses in grades K-12. “These are brand new standards for our teachers this coming year. Many haven’t even been trained on them yet, which is helpful because we’re now able to create a tool for teachers to adjust to those new requirements.”

“Our curriculum fits really well into the sixth-grade standards. Plus, by bringing in the topics of our society and economy, as well as the design, engineering and math elements that make sustainable systems work, it makes this curriculum a little more interdisciplinary.”

Students Learning About Waste Reduction Techniques in Sustainable Classrooms

Urban Green Lab’s Sustainable Classrooms curriculum makes their engaging lessons fit seamlessly into state educational requirements.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) originally commissioned Urban Green Lab for the Sustainable Classrooms program in 2016 as a part of its 2015-2025 Solid Waste Plan. The plan, which aims to reduce waste and increase recycling across the state, has eight major objectives, the sixth being to “expand and focus education and outreach” concerning waste reduction, recycling and composting.

“TDEC was looking for leaders in the field, people who were already working in waste and sustainability education and approached us to pilot this new program for the next two years. It’s really geared toward urban areas, and touches on how they use resources, how they can reduce waste and how we can improve our sustainable practices.”

In addition to TDEC, Urban Green Lab has partnered with Metro Nashville Public School District, Vanderbilt University and, most recently, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT), who has awarded a $200,000 Special Litter Grant to the program to add litter education to the Sustainable Classrooms curriculum.

Michael McClanahan, Scenic Byways and Litter Grant Program manager, says TDOT hopes the initiative can help greatly reduce the amount of litter on Tennessee’s highways through the power of education and behavioral change.

“At any given time, there are 100 million pieces of litter on Tennessee highways,” says McClanahan. “Because of this, TDOT spends $15 million annually on roadside cleanup efforts, and we’re hoping to build awareness around the problem, which is why we’ve partnered with Urban Green Lab for Sustainable Classrooms.”

In addition to their partnership with Urban Green Lab, the Tennessee Department of Transportation hopes to curb highway litter with their Nobody Trashes Tennessee campaign.

The partnership was a natural fit for TDOT, as the department has a long history of public education and outreach campaigns across the Volunteer State. Their latest campaign, Nobody Trashes Tennessee, was created to encourage Tennesseans to rethink the way they dispose of waste on the road and has been promoted by the likes of hit country star Cassadee Pope, native Tennessee musician Valerie June and their own animated mascot, Trashsquatch.

Still, McClanahan says Sustainable Classrooms provides a new, unique way for TDOT to impact litter reduction.

“We’re trying to change behavior through awareness and that was a natural tie in with Urban Green Lab. It’s easy for us to get a group of volunteers for a cleanup, but it’s harder for us to work directly with educators, who can help ingrain good habits in their students,” says McClanahan. “I think the thing we’re most excited about with Sustainable Classrooms is that it’s a program created by educators, for educators.”

Winners of Urban Green Labs’ Sustainable Teacher Awards 2017

Nicole Williams and Lyzette Garza were winners of last year’s 2017 Sustainable Teacher Awards.
(photo by Laura Arrendondo)

The Sustainable Classrooms two-day educator training kicks off July 9-10 and will begin with an introduction to sustainability, followed by an overview of their seven-part curriculum and a chance to network with partners like the Nashville Food Project, as well as like-minded educators in the area.

Teachers will also have the chance to obtain a Green Classroom Professional Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Finally, the event will close with the 2018 Sustainable Teacher Awards, which rewards excellence in sustainability education for School Leadership, Curriculum Integration and Project Management.

Talk to Urban Green Lab About Sustainability in Your Classroom

Though the July training sessions are currently full, Andrew encourages Nashville educators and administrators to talk to Urban Green Lab to find out how they can introduce their students to sustainable living practices.

“Even if you’re unable to make the July trainings, reach out – we’re hearing a lot of interest in this program and we’d love to have a conversation about bringing sustainability education to your classroom.”

For more information about Sustainable Classrooms and other sustainable education opportunities available in the Nashville area, you can email, or reach out to Diana Andrew directly. You can also support the Sustainable Classrooms program by donating to their 2020 Campaign for Sustainability Education.

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