Real Life Lessons: Should Maryland Stop Smoking?

Teachers, if you are looking for a great STEM learning project which could help students understand health, climate change, politics and power,  look to our polluted skies.

Will Maryland choose to reduce greenhouse gases and pollutants to improve the health of our citizens and reduce the harm from global warming?  Or will we walk away from these reductions to fight a perceived threat of cheaper power production in neighboring states? 

This is an open question.

The state set a ambitious goal in April for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but the path for creating those reductions is not clear.

When Governor Hogan began his administration, he refused to publish air quality regulations which would have required older, highly polluting coal fired power plants to reduce their emissions or close.  Now, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE)  is considering whether Maryland will leave the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to reduce a perceived power cost advantage of neighboring states.   The argument is that if neighboring states can produce power more cheaply by polluting heavily, then Maryland would suffer from the pollution without profiting from the generation.

This project enables students to learn about the health and environmental costs of our dependence on fossil fuels and to consider which power sources are the most socially, economically and environmentally viable.

In the following six video clips,  advocacy groups, the Secretary of the MDE and citizens testify in support of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and in support of Maryland remaining in the multi-state cap and trade program to help reduce dependence on fossil fuels.    No one testified in favor of leaving RGGI, but Ben Grumbles, the Secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment discussed the possibility of the state withdrawing from the agreement.

What are the arguments which your students find most persuasive? Should Maryland consider the health and environmental costs of pollution when it calculates the price of energy?

What path would they suggest for the future of Maryland?

You can find additional materials in the resource section or email me at to create a project fitted to your class.


Grumbles on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

Why RGGI makes economic sense..and dollars

The Maryland Department of the Environment is urged to set strong goals for greenhouse gas reductions and to act boldly in reducing pollution. Testimony was made at the Maryland Department of the Environment as they consider the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Officials have hinted of leaving RGGI if they perceive economic advantages going to neighboring states.

Can we Build 21st Century Schools with 20th Century Thinking?


The 21st Century School building project is off to a  rocky start.

  • School closings and mergers have angered students, parents and communities.
  • Estimates of constructions costs have been higher than anticipated.
  • Moving students to temporary schools has been problematic.
  • The school design process has generally lacked the outreach, communication and collaboration it needs to be effective.
  • And almost every project is running behind schedule.

It has been a lot to ask of Baltimore City Schools to go from putting up a few buildings each decade to renew all of its schools in a decade, especially as the district is shedding staff each year in response to budget cuts.

But if we focus on making three improvements now, we can still build our schools, our learning and our communities as we promised at the beginning of this process.

1) We need to decide what kind of schools we are building. 

Are we simply building schools with new paint, clean windows and air conditioning?

Are we building new schools with space for after school programs run by community organizations?

Or are we building schools that do both of these, but also involve and promote our communities with services, education and opportunities?

This third type of school requires that we not only design our schools differently, but that we have to think differently about the role of our schools, the hours they are open, and how we welcome our parents, community members and organizations into the school.       If we build it they will come is a great assumption for a community school .. unless you lock it or charge fees for using it..which is what we do now.


2) We need to  improve the outreach and collaboration of the school design process to include the concerns and wisdom of our teachers, students, parents, community members and experts.

I’ve spoken with school principals and teachers who had no idea of the status of the design or building process at their school and felt left out of the design decisions for their schools.   If we are building these schools to encourage teachers to collaborate, why isn’t this design process the perfect learning collaboration for teachers, students and design experts?  And why is the school design process run by City Schools running independently from the neighborhood design process run by Baltimore City?


3) We need to find better values in construction.

Independent building experts should be allowed to look over preliminary designs to find savings through design integration, better sourcing, bulk purchasing and long term savings.


We have a choice between checking some boxes on citizen involvement and building (clumsily) to the lowest allowed standard or blazing a trail for other school districts to follow.  It’s time to decide which way we want to go.

The Problem of School Main ent ance

school maintenance
School maintenance is often the first expense cut during school budget reductions. This proves costly in the long term as equipment fails prematurely and health and learning environments for students are compromised. The missing letters at the main entrance to an elite Baltimore High School doesn’t reduce the learning or health of the students, but poor air quality and poor climate control at the school does.



If you wanted another reason to consider home schooling or to add a hazmat suit to Johnny’s back to school list, be sure to page through the 2016 Healthy Schools Network report on school health. The reading may prove less exciting than Jaws, but its list of hazards (including PCB’s, hazardous chemicals, asbestos, lead and mold) may have you pondering whether you should take your children swimming in shark infested waters instead of sending them off to school.


The report cites a variety of worsening trends in school conditions and student health. Reduced school budgets, aging school buildings and more extreme weather events has made it harder to maintain healthy school environments. As these trends make it more difficult to provide healthy conditions at schools, the report also states that students themselves are more vulnerable, with more health challenges and increased numbers experiencing poverty.
Healthy People 2020 reported trends toward reduced school health in several areas. Using figures from 2014, they reported that:
• the number of schools with indoor air quality management programs fell from 51% to 46%.
• The number of schools with hazardous materials management programs fell from 86% to 84%
• The number of schools with integrated pest management practices fell from 56 percent to 54%.
• The number of schools inspecting water outlets for lead fell from 56% to 46%.
Although Healthy People 2020 indicated that these results may be inaccurate due to self-reporting and faulty data analysis, they concurred with the findings of the report that indicators of school health conditions are falling.

So should we send Johnny and Jessy off to school this year, or leave them to study chemistry and nuclear physics in the basement with Uncle Fester?

While it isn’t comforting to see reductions in overall health indicators at schools, these findings don’t tell you whether your kids are at risk at your school.   There are huge differences in the effectiveness of the health and safety management programs at different school districts.   In Maryland, some districts have highly effective programs while others do not. Some schools are well maintained; others simply maintain that they are.
It is a pretty good bet that if your school budgets have been cut, that the health and maintenance budgets were the first to bleed. Delayed maintenance can start a downward spiral of higher maintenance and replacement costs which the district cannot or will not choose to pay.  This stark difference in the health and maintenance of schools is evident in Maryland.  In a report titled “Maintenance of Maryland’s Public School Buildings released in 2016, all eight of the schools found deficient in maintenance by state inspections were in Baltimore City.   Of the 27 Baltimore City Public Schools inspected,  nearly one third of the schools were found to be deficient.  You can read the report in full here.   The Baltimore City entries are pages 28-30.


So if you want to ensure that your child’s school is healthy, you could move to a school in Montgomery, Howard or Hartford County.  But if you are stuck in Baltimore city, you may want  to send your child to school with temperature gauges  and air quality monitors .


This is what we are doing with Experiment You.  When students learn to monitor and benchmark the health of their school, they are not only getting a great STEM learning project, they are gaining the ability to learn about and improve the health of their school environment.     At Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, students discovered excessive water bills which resulted in over $400,000 dollars in credits to the school system and discovered that their main lecture room had no working ventilation.  At Patterson High School, students monitored the temperatures, humidity and air quality in their classrooms, compared energy use at different schools  and studied bacteria.    Using their schools as laboratories, students and teachers become  scientist and engineers studying and improving their environments.


Learning By Design: How the 21st Century School Building project can create better learning, collaboration and schools.

Building More Than Buildings:

How the 21st Century Building Project can improve our learning, collaboration, and the schools we build.


When Andre Alonso announced the funding of the 21st Century School Building project in Baltimore City, he restated a quote from Winston Churchill:

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

It is a reminder of the importance of this shaping, and of our opportunity to build learning and community through the design process. If our buildings are to transform our education and our communities, we must first transform how we shape them.
Meaningful involvement of teachers, students, community members and experts in the design of these buildings can inform the architects and city planners of the needs, problems and hopes for the school and community. In turn, these experts can share their insights on how to create better functioning buildings, improve neighborhood design, and access job opportunities. This collaborative learning enables us to build not just a better school building, but also a better school culture and more successful students and communities.

Charrette or Charade?

The size and speed of the school construction project is daunting.     It is easier to look across a nearly empty room and check the box for community involvement and move on. But if we are to build learning and gain the wisdom and support of our communities, we need to fill these rooms and strengthen relationships still aching from school closings. Poor communication, and short, disjointed public engagement is failing to create the sustained involvement and trust necessary for successful collaboration. Even staff and teachers have been left without valid information on the status of their school construction projects.
Failure to integrate the design process into school curriculum and after school programs robs our students of a golden opportunity to learn and to shape their future.
Shaping our learning  (we don’t have to wait to collaborate).
Building and neighborhood design processes are perfectly suited for collaborative STEM and experiential learning—the learning these new schools are supposed to foster. Engaging students, faculty and community members in this learning can prepare them to participate in the design process while strengthening their skills in math, science, engineering, health, and economics.
Starting with their existing school, students can collect data on the temperatures, humidity, air quality, lighting, acoustics, and asthma triggers. They can study how to improve bus service, reduce energy use and storm water runoff at their school. This information can help inform the school design process and prepare students to examine larger questions including:

• What are the biggest problems in the community and how can our school help solve them?
• How can our school foster the health and learning of our students and community?
• How can our school help students and their families obtain economic and educational opportunities?

Studying these issues with planning experts and community members would bring more wisdom to the design processes and demonstrate how we can learn and collaborate to solve real problems.  This is the educational and cultural transformation that Baltimore needs. If we are to build our promises, we need to start now with pilot programs and partners.

Experiment You

Experiment You:                                                                                  How students can improve their health and learning.

Every school is a laboratory and every student is an experiment.

Our schools constantly test our students to measure their achievement. But if we want to improve student achievement, it is time for students to test their schools.

  • Are classrooms too hot or too cold?
  • Are pest and mold problems causing asthma attacks and absences?
  • Are students getting enough exercise and water?
  • Do students need glasses to read the board and their textbooks?
  • Does poor bus service cause students to be late or miss school?
  • Are lunches nutritious and palatable?
  • Why are so many students still failing to succeed in math and science?

Challenging students to investigate and improve their health and learning engages them in a meaningful, real world scientific inquiry. It is a perfect fit for STEM, Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core curriculum and gives students hands on training for careers in health, building, teaching, and social science.

Students see how they can use science and innovation to improve their lives.

Experiment You engages students as scientists and problem solvers in a very real and important experiment: how can we use our learning and innovation to improve our lives?

As a STEM based inquiry, students use surveys, observations, and tools to benchmark their health and the health and learning conditions at their school.

Students learn to create and use surveys to gain information on student health and school conditions. How many students have missed school because of asthma related issues? What classrooms are too hot or cold? Where have students seen mold, mice or cockroaches? Are students getting enough healthy foods, sleep and exercise?


Tools for Schools
Using the Tools for Schools walk through assessment from EPA, students discover and report asthma triggers at their schools.


Operations Report Card
Using the Operations report card protocol from the Collaboration for High Performing Schools (CHPS) students collect and analyze data on the temperature, humidity, air quality, lighting and acoustics.


Energy Star Portfolio Manager
Using the Energy Star Portfolio Manager, students can benchmark the carbon footprint of their school and compare the energy use of their school to similar schools in their area. Students identify ways to eliminate energy waste at their school.Solving for …us.
After collecting this data, students are challenged to create improvements in each of these areas. Finding ways to improve their health and the conditions at their school engages students in real world problem solving at ground level.

  • Can cross ventilation reduce excessive heat in classrooms or does the air conditioning need to be fixed?
  • Why are the outdoor security lights on in the daytime?
  • How can students help reduce the amount of pests in the school without chemicals?
  • How can we reduce asthma related absences at our school?
  • Is there an easy way to screen students for vision problems?

Experiment You offers students learning, control and responsibility.

Every school is a laboratory and every student is an experiment.

The question is whether our students will remain lab rats running a maze, or whether they become scientists and innovators, using their learning to improve their conditions and outcomes. This is rich learning that grows the confidence and competence of our students. It is time.

Environmental education and STEM projects to improve the health and learning of students