Communities in Action: a network of environmental stewards

Article Author: 
Julie West (cover photo / J.K. West)

Some researchers work alone.  Others work in teams.  Environmental scientist and UNT Assistant Professor of Biology Ruthanne "Rudi" Thompson orchestrates a network of people across disciplines and generations towards a common goal: reducing the carbon footprint. Her work frequently bridges university research to primary and secondary grade school settings. A passionate conservationist, she is as enthusiastic about teaching environmental concepts to K-12 students as she is to her college students. Raising awareness among young persons in issues such as water conservation, energy consumption, and wind and solar power is a “roll forward” investment that she believes will potentially create a new generation of environmental stewards. Whether a fifth grader, superintendent, college student, city official, or teacher, the people in Thompson’s network are ambassadors for conservation and work together to build energy-efficient and sustainable communities.

UNT environmental scientist and biologist, Rudi Thompson, with multidirectional wind turbine and solar panels outside the Environmental Education, Science and Technology Building
Photo by J.K. West

SMART schools

A utility meter clicks through digits at the back of a greenhouse on the UNT campus.  Unlike other meters, it functions in reverse—each backward cycle a credit applied to the power grid.  It fulfills the important task of logging captured energy from two alternative energy sources.  A multidirectional wind turbine and a grid of solar panels makes energy for the greenhouse, and for every kilowatt made, a kilowatt is offset, and that’s money saved for UNT. 

The greenhouse is located in a parking lot next to the Environmental Education, Science and Technology Building.  Although a parking lot is not a glamorous setting for sophisticated renewable instruments, the location is testament, Thompson explains, to the equipment’s "small footprint" requirements.  The wind turbine is the first of its kind in the city of Denton, and she thinks alternative technologies of this scale could be a model for other urban areas. Even though Denton does not get the steady winds that blow through other regions in the state, she is eager to investigate how it and other low wind communities could benefit from these technologies.

Filip Celander, first year master’s student in Radio, Television and Film, says he appreciates seeing the turbine every time he bicycles past the building.  "The wind turbine is beautiful; it looks more like a kinetic sculpture than it does an appliance.  And it is gratifying to know that it generates power every time the wind moves its blades."

A multidirectional wind turbine and solar panels power a greenhouse affiliated with the UNT Environmental Education, Science and Technology Building
Photo by J.K. West

The installation is the final project in a three-year program, the Smart Schools Initiative, which has helped UNT and schools across the state save energy and also educate students about energy conservation.  Thompson administered the program using a $500,000 grant award from the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) to create smaller, competitive grants for schools to implement sustainable energy, facility upgrades.

"Many schools want to save energy, but they shy away from implementing energy-efficient upgrades because of the initial costs involved.  The SECO grants gave schools incentive to implement new energy conservation strategies and equipment," she says.

To encourage participation, Thompson organized energy efficiency workshops for school districts looking for ways to increase energy efficiency and savings in their facilities. Created for facilities managers, superintendents, school board members, and school engineers and architects, the workshops connected participants with the information and resources needed to develop and implement both large and small projects at the district level.

Of the more than two dozen grant proposals received, Thompson and team selected eight schools in addition to UNT whose upgrades showed the most potential for enduring and sustainable improvements—from wind turbines and efficient lighting to programmable thermostats and occupancy sensors—and whose projects could be used as valuable classroom resources:

  • A.W. Brown-Fellowship Leadership Academy in Dallas received a 1.2 kw vertical wind turbine, 6-panel solar array and monitoring equipment.
  • Cherokee ISD in San Saba County received energy-efficient lighting fixtures and bulbs, LED exit signs, programmable thermostats and occupancy sensors.
  • Universal Academy Coppell received roof-mounted solar panels and monitoring equipment.
  • Universal Academy Irving received a 1.2 kw vertical wind turbine, 6-solar panel array and monitoring equipment.
  • Hallsburg ISD in Waco received energy-efficient lighting fixtures and energy-efficient stadium lighting.
  • Lometa ISD in Lampasas County received energy-efficient lighting and energy-efficient HVAC units for classrooms.
  • Humble ISD in Harris County received energy efficient-lighting and occupancy sensors for two middle schools.
  • Amarillo ISD received funding for a district-wide energy manager.
Renewable Energy Production Data

Installation upgrades were completed in 2011.  Since then, Thompson has been monitoring activity and collecting data from all of the school participants.  She is encouraged by what the data reveals—a clear savings of both energy and money.  She says, "The data shows that the upgrades are making a difference. That was the goal! The hope is that school officials will continue to invest in high performance, resource saving technologies and strategies." Additionally, the data can be used for predictive scenarios to glean probable future usage and savings, and there is always room for improvement, she adds. By investigating the efficiency of models, she can determine if there are factors that could make them even better.

The Amarillo Independent School District used their SECO grant to form an energy management team.  Its members implemented upgrades that reduced energy consumption across all of its district schools, including improved hot water systems, efficient lighting systems for school gyms and other buildings, and occupancy sensors—small but significant steps towards sustainability with cumulative results. One district official says, "We have seen a dramatic decrease in utility consumption since forming the energy management team. I credit the team’s success to its diversity and leadership. The team is made up of individuals with electrical, mechanical, data, programming and management experience. Thanks to the grant we were able to provide an exceptionally capable leader to coordinate the efforts and raise the awareness of conserving energy district wide."

Energy-efficient practice and savings is one side of the SMART equation. Educating kids about renewable energy is another. Here again, Thompson’s help makes a difference. The State of Texas curriculum standards for primary and secondary grades require that students demonstrate knowledge of renewable energy concepts, and show appropriate use of computer models and applications, equipment, techniques, and procedures for collecting quantitative and qualitative data. In the next phase of the SMART initiative, Thompson will design educational lessons for teachers that will help students meet state requirements while learning about renewable energy in a compelling, creative way.

Innovative data visualization charts, interactive models, and hands-on kits will give kids the opportunity to study smaller solar panels, make wind turbines, and compare figures and data in relationship to the renewable energy installations and sustainability concepts.  "As a former high school science teacher, I realized that teachers don’t always have the resources to teach science in an engaging format," says Thompson. "To embrace alternative sources of energy we must first understand them. This project brings alternative energy such as wind turbines and solar panels to the schools so that students can study and determine for themselves the viability of these technologies."

Water Initiatives

Water conservation is increasingly a focal area of study for many researchers, and innovative solutions are needed from all disciplines. The Government Accountability Office reports that water shortages are predicted for 36 states by 2013, and groundwater in many parts of the country is being depleted faster than it can be replenished.  According to the City of Dallas water utilities company, "Each individual uses approximately 50 gallons of water in our homes each day." Dallas is committed to raising community awareness around water issues. Thompson received a $1.7 million grant to run the City of Dallas’ Environmental Education Initiative (EEI) from 2008 through 2013, and she engaged kids to spread the word.

Student participants, City of Dallas Environmental Education Initiative, water conservation activities

Drip! Drop! Water Does Not Stop! Name That Surface Water! Now You See It—Now You Don’t! Water To Supply an Ever-growing Population. Grade specific lessons were among the many outreach activities that Thompson created to educate K-12 school children on the importance of water conservation and recycling. Younger students learned the basics of water quality and quantity—from freshwater availability to the importance of a watershed and the effects of pollution on water bodies.  Older students built on these precepts by developing critical thinking skills and conducting research that helps them evaluate problems and devise solutions. Whatever the grade level, students came away with a profound understanding that water is an essential element of the environment, and that we are its stewards.  

Student participants, City of Dallas Environmental Education Initiative, water conservation activities

After a minimum of 250 in-class presentations and additional field experiences, Thompson found that kids were natural advocates for conservation, but she wondered whether or not the message could "trickle up" to their parents, older generations, and the community. Can you gauge the effectiveness of the EEI educational programs in reducing water usage in Dallas? She put this question to the test with the help of City of Dallas officials.

Interactive games and coloring books are among the activities that bring the conservation narrative to younger kids; City of Dallas Environmental Education Initiative

The premise of the investigation, though simple, involved a complex baseline of factors. Water usage patterns were compared from Dallas zip codes where students had participated in the EEI water conservation program against those that had not. Three groups of zip code areas were selected for the study, each with a similar profile to the others—socioeconomic status, water costs, topography, and weather patterns were among the variables considered.  Homes in the first grouping of zip codes were marketed and received water conservation mailings. The second target areas did not receive mailings; instead, students in these district schools participated in the EEI water conservation program.  The third control group neither received the mailings nor participated in the program.

High school interns Anthony Ruiz, Juan Moreno and Ingrid Mendoza spent a total of six-weeks with Thompson at the Science Education Research Laboratory (SERL) at UNT studying and comparing the data. The three students organized and sorted the data and used a software system, geographic information system (GIS), to analyze the numbers.  The team asked, "Was there a change or reduction in usage?  If so, to what degree could this change be attributed to the kids?"

The results were surprising.  The marketed areas showed a marginal decrease in water consumption.  The third group showed no decrease whatsoever. And the districts whose schools participated in the EEI program showed a statistically significant decrease in water usage. Thompson says, "Of course I wanted to believe that education would make a difference, but I was truly surprised by the findings. There is a clear indication that the program is a contributing factor in the reduction of water use. Kids are excited about conservation.  It makes sense that they would share what they have learned with parents and peers." She grins and adds, "Besides, kids like nagging their parents to recycle and turn off the lights and water, right? It is empowering for them to be role models."

The students say that the internship opened their eyes to the impact that individuals have on the environment, while also giving them a real-world experience with research. "My parents really noticed a difference when I talked about the EEI program versus the minimum wage jobs that I've had in the past. They said that I smiled a little bigger when I talked about EEI, and they could tell that I enjoyed making a difference," says Moreno.

The City of Dallas is smiling, too.  The EEI program counts on kids to usher in new conservation perspectives and habits. Derinda Stewart, project coordinator for the Dallas water conservation division says, "The EEI program has provided valuable education to the youth of Dallas. Kids play an important role in making sure that every drop counts and there are things they can do to help their family save water. If everyone saves a little, we can save a lot. The partnership with the City of Dallas Water Utilities and The University of North Texas is very successful. The program continues to enhance conservation practices that will maintain quality of life and allow economic growth and development in Dallas."

Forward Thinking

Up next in Thompson’s queue of meaningful conservation projects is Research Experiences for Teachers in Sensor Networks, a collaboration with UNT Regents Professor of Electrical Engineering, Miguel Acevedo. Funded by the National Science Foundation, this new project teaches public school teachers the value of using wireless sensors in classroom science projects. The devices can be used to monitor a variety of environmental conditions such as soil moisture, temperature, ozone levels, air quality, and rainfall amounts. Through workshops and short courses, Acevedo and Thompson will provide teachers with the training and resources needed to engage K-12 students in a variety of sensor-based, classroom lessons.

Weather stations, City of Denton water facilities, and other North Texas sites are among the ground-based network of participating observatories equipped with sensors. Data collected from these locations and from the projects that teachers create with their students will be monitored, archived and accessible via the UNT Texas Environmental Observatory (TEO) website—an important environmental resource for educators and students, scientists and engineers, and the general public.

Environmentalist, research scientist, program administrator, community outreach coordinator, teacher—Thompson wears different hats as needed to motivate people to get involved in environmental issues and projects. More than training teachers and students, she inspires communities to embrace new conservation perspectives and practice. Whereas her services and partnerships benefit many groups, they bring educational value to the public schools, where they are much needed and appreciated.  That’s a sustainable investment—each conservation project, like the clicking utility meter, another credit applied to the next generation of environmental stewards.