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Exploring School Building Data: Energy

120 minutes
Suggested to split between two class periods
Primary subjects: 
Engineering, Environmental Education, Science
9, 10, 11, 12
Average: 0 (0 votes)

This lesson uses an online building performance data platform to explore how schools use energy, the relationship between energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, and the differences between an average school and a high-performance green school.

Key objectives for students
Explain how and why a school uses energy
Explain the relationship between energy use and greenhouse gas emissions
Identify the differences in energy and emissions between an average school and a high-performance green school
Secondary subjects
Career Technical Education (CTE), Mathematics
Critical Thinking, Systems thinking
Design Thinking, Multi-Disciplinary, Real-World Application, Technology Integration
Background information for teachers

This lesson explores how a school uses energy, the relationship between energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, and the differences between an average school building and a high-performance school using the Arc Digital Playground. Arc is an online building sustainability management platform that tracks and analyzes five aspects of a building’s performance: water consumption, energy consumption, waste production, transportation, and human experience.

The Digital Playground is a demo version of the Arc platform, where teachers and students can learn about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts using a set of sample schools, pre-loaded with data on energy, water, waste, and other key metrics.

If you are inspired by this lesson, you can apply the same concepts and tools to understand your school data and make a difference in the real world. Arc is free for all schools and getting started is easy:

  1. Create an account or log in to find your school on ArcSkoru
  2. Organize and enter your performance data
  3. Analyze, score, and improve your school

If you want to continue engaging students in investigating and improving their school's sustainability, check out Building Learners- a full-support K-12 education program that includes curriculum, Arc, trainings for teachers, and access to a green building professional. Building Learners engages students through real world, project-based learning about environmental and human health impacts. Pairing standards-aligned, hands-on lessons about sustainability, such as this lesson, and a robust building sustainability benchmarking and tracking tool, Arc, this program uses your own school building as a laboratory to teach STEM topics as well as engage students in action projects that develop skills and knowledge that can be applied across a range of subject areas and career pathways.

No matter what grade level you teach, these lessons can be used to envision how the Building Learners program may be implemented in your classroom. We suggest for anyone interested in Building Learners review these lessons to envision using school sustainability data with your students. We additionally suggest that all 9-12 grade teachers implement these lessons in the classroom before applying for the program.

In Advance
  • We suggest that teachers try each link to ensure that student computers may access the sites and anticipate any navigation questions.
  • Teachers may also find it useful to follow along with this Arc article that provides step-by-step instructions for using the Arc digital platform to teach students about energy data.
Materials needed
  • Worksheet, one per student
  • PowerPoint
  • Access to the internet
  • Computer device, one per student or one per two students
  • Construction paper and markers to create energy use rules
Day 1
Time Exercise Description
30 minutes What is a green school?
30 minutes How does a school use energy?
Day 2
Time Exercise Description
30 minutes What is the relationship between energy use and greenhouse gas emissions?
20 minutes What is the difference between an average school and a green school?
10 minutes Close

Day 1
What is a green school?

1. As students come into class, display on the board the following questions. Ask students to answer each question, writing in complete sentences, and be prepared to share their thoughts.

  • What do you think the difference is between a green school and an average school?
  • What data can we collect within a school to determine if it is green?

2. After they complete their answers, call on students to share their thoughts. Keep track of common answers by writing on them on the board or asking students to write down the common themes. (Common answers should be: green schools use less water and energy, produce less waste, have better indoor air quality, and have less of an impact on the environment around it than an average school. We can tell if a school is green by collecting data about how much water and energy it uses, how much waste it produces, how clean the air inside is, etc.)

3. Tell students, “while any school can be designed with "green" features, like efficient light fixtures, low-flow faucets or solar panels, the best way to tell if a school is green or not is by looking at the school’s building performance data or how efficiently a building is working. That means looking at how much energy and water it uses, how much waste it produces, how students and teachers are traveling to the school (by bus, walking, car), and how physically comfortable everyone is in the school. This type of information can be collected through utility bills (for energy and water), from the school's waste hauler (who takes the trash and recycling), by measuring indoor air quality with an air testing monitor, and by asking occupants how they come to and from the building each day, and how they feel when they are inside the building.” Write the building performance categories on the board (energy, water, waste, air quality, occupant comfort, and transportation) and the sources of data next to each.

4. “Today, we’re going to compare how much energy is used at a green school versus an average school. We’ll look at energy data from two schools to compare.”

5. Direct students to go to the Arc Digital Playground. When on the site, they will find a black side bar with navigation options. Tell students to navigate to the page by following the path of The Projects → Buildings → My Schools. This will reveal four schools:

alt text

6. "Each of these four schools has entered in data for all five performance categories, giving them a complete set of operational performance data. You can see a summary of statistics for all four schools under My School District.”

  • TEACHING NOTE: The data in this lesson is adapted from real school projects using the Arc platform. Students can learn more about real world scoring and benchmarking by reading the Boston Latin School case study. Teachers can also supplement this lesson by teaching these benchmarking lessons.

7. Give students time to explore the platform, paying attention to the differences in the data between the green schools and the average schools.

8. After students have had ample time (approximately 10-15 minutes) to explore the platform, redirect their attention back to you. Say: “there are many dimensions to a green school, energy is just one. For this lesson, we are going to focus on energy and emissions and explore three fundamental questions about high-performance green schools and energy:

  • How and why does a school use energy?
  • What is the relationship between energy use and greenhouse gas emissions?
  • What are the differences in energy and emissions between an average school and a high-performance green school?”

    • TEACHING NOTE: As best practice, keep these three questions displayed throughout the remainder of the class to remind students what they should be answering throughout the lesson.

How does a school use energy?

1. Ask the question “what is the purpose of a school building?” Give time to brainstorm and call on students to provide their thoughts.

2. Afterwards, tell students “the purpose of a school building is to provide safe, comfortable conditions for learning. This means that a school needs to provide physical shelter from the weather and systems to provide light, heat, cooling, and ventilation.”

3. “From an energy perspective, a school is a box that separates two environments: indoors and outdoors. The outside of the box receives energy from the sun and exchanges energy with the air and ground. We use energy to heat and cool the air inside the box. We also use energy for lighting and to power educational equipment.”

4. Ask students, “which scenario requires more energy to heat the school: outside conditions of 60°F or outside conditions of -10°F"

5. “That’s right, if it were -10°F it would take much more energy to heat the building than at 60°F. That's because the bigger the difference between indoor and outdoor conditions; the more energy is usually required.”

6. “So, why do we care about how a school building uses energy? Building systems, like AC and heating, make indoor conditions comfortable by using energy, and energy usually results in the emission of pollutants. The type and amount of pollution depends on type and amount of energy used.”

7. Ask students what type of energy they think produces the least pollution: electricity generated by burning natural gas or electricity generated from solar panels. (Correct answer: electricity generated from solar panels because no CO2 is created)

8. “Every school has to use energy but schools can get their energy from different sources. Many schools use natural gas to heat air and water and use electricity for ventilation, cooling, and lighting.”

9. Next, direct students to the Green Elementary School in the Playground. Tell them to go to the Electricity 1 data by following this path: Credits/Action → Data Input → Electric 1. Students should find this graph:

alt text

10. Tell students that each column represents total electricity use in a month and give them enough time to explore the graph.

11. "Notice that electricity use is relatively low in June and July. Can you imagine why this may be? What is different about these months?” (School isn't in session, so the systems aren't running as hard to keep it comfortable)

12. Now, direct students to click on “Gas 1” and find this graph:

alt text

13. “This represents data for natural gas consumption; primarily used for space and water heating. Notice that natural gas use peaks in the winter months and drops in the summer. Can you explain this pattern? Why might natural gas use be higher in the colder months?” (It is colder in the winter, so the school would burn more natural gas to keep the school warm)

14. Finally, ask students to consider the graphs together. Based on their inspection of these graphs and knowledge about how schools work, students should answer the following questions on their worksheet before the end of class:

  • What are three occupant behaviors that contribute to school's energy consumption? (Turning lights on, setting the air conditioning/heating to high, keeping electronics plugged in all day, using hot water, etc.)
  • If a school upgraded all of its light bulbs from fluorescent to LED light bulbs (a more efficient energy product), what would happen to the school's monthly electricity bills? How would you expect a graph of the school’s monthly electricity consumption to change after the switch? (The school's electricity bill would be much lower because the light bulbs require less energy to use. The school's monthly electricity consumption graph would drop after the switch to LED light bulbs.)
  • What would happen to the graph if the school upgraded an energy source that is always on (like exit signs) with more efficient products (like LED light bulbs)? What would the resulting graph for electricity look like? (The school's electricity bill would drop drastically because those energy sources are always on and using much less energy everyday. The resulting graph would have a drastic drop after the switch to more efficient products.)

    • TEACHING NOTE: You can direct students to learn more about energy use in schools from the US Energy Star Program.

Suggested stopping place if splitting between two classes

Day 2
What is the relationship between energy use and greenhouse gas emissions?

1. As students come into class, display the questions below for students to answer:

  • How do schools use energy? (Schools use energy to heat and cool the building, turn the lights on, charge and power our plugged in devices, heat water, etc.)
  • What factors contribute to schools using more energy one month over the other? (Weather changes, occupancy levels, outside lighting levels, etc.)
  • What factors contribute to some schools using more energy than other schools? (The materials and products the school uses, the indoor conditions, occupant behavior, etc.)

2. "Now that we have a basic understanding of how schools use energy. Let’s consider the implications of energy use." Ask students, “why do we care about energy use?”

  • Using energy costs money.
  • Using energy usually emits pollution

3. “Saving money on energy is important. However, for this lesson, we will focus on the relationship between energy and pollution, more specifically the emission of greenhouse gas emissions. Does anyone know what greenhouse gasses are?”

4. “Right, these are gases (mainly carbon dioxide but also methane, nitrous oxide and more) that are released into the atmosphere and absorb infrared radiation from the sun- which keeps our planet warm. When the natural balance of these gasses in our atmosphere is off, they become harmful pollutants that warm our planet beyond its natural levels, contributing to climate change."

5. "Greenhouse gases are emitted whenever there is combustion (fire). This includes burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, petroleum) and burning biomass (wood, plants, biomaterial). Large power plants that burn coal or natural gas emit huge amounts of greenhouse gases. Large wildfires also emit a considerable amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The more greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, the warmer our planet becomes. This is called the greenhouse gas effect."

6. "Greenhouse gases trap sunlight reflected from Earth in our atmosphere. They are vital to life; without them, the Earth would be too cold for us to survive. However, too many greenhouse gases in our atmosphere warms our planet unnaturally, raising average temperatures and causing unnatural climate patterns (climate change).

7. “We will use performance data from Green Elementary to consider two sources of emissions:"

  • Combustion of natural gas
  • Use of electricity

8. “Natural gas is typically used to heat air and water, and is burned on-site in a furnace or boiler. Burning natural gas combines methane (CH4) with oxygen (O2) to get carbon dioxide (CO2) and water. Every molecule of methane burned releases a molecule of CO2 plus two molecules of water (H2O)."


9. "CO2 is a natural part of the atmosphere but burning large amounts of fossil fuels increases its concentration in the atmosphere and gradually warms the climate.”

  • TEACHING NOTE: Students can see a graph of the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere in the past 50 years here..

10. “Unlike natural gas, electricity is not typically produced on-site. Rather, it is most often produced at a power plant and sent to a school through a transmission and distribution system (a.k.a., “the grid”). Emissions from this delivered energy vary place-to-place and over time -- minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and month-to-month.”

  • TEACHING NOTE: Students can explore the world's emission data minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and month-to-month here.

11. “If we look at a long period, we can define an average relationship between electricity consumed and the average amount of fuel used to produce the electricity. This relationship is called an ‘emissions factor’ -- the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced per unit of electricity used.”

12. “This means that the pollution from using electricity is the product of the amount of electricity consumed multiplied by the emissions factor of the electricity supply.”

Pollution from electricity= Electricity consumed X Emissions factor of electricity supply
  • TEACHING NOTE: Students can learn more about emissions factors here.

13. Direct students back to the Green Elementary School's energy data on the Digital Playground.

14. “We can use the Green Elementary School to explore total greenhouse gas emissions over time -- the combination of on-site combustion of natural gas and emissions from purchased electricity.”

15. Direct students to the three energy graphs and to answer the following questions on their worksheet:

  • Consider the three energy graphs: what would happen to greenhouse gas emissions during a long cold spell? Would emissions go up or down during that period?
  • What would you expect to happen if the electricity utility replaced polluting generators with solar panels? Would total greenhouse gas emissions go up or down after the switch to solar panels?

16. Now, direct students to find the emissions factor for their school by navigating to the U.S. EPA’s Power Profiler and entering your school’s zipcode to answer the following question on their worksheet:

  • Is your electricity cleaner or dirtier than the U.S. average?

What is the difference between an average school and a green school?

1. Now that we understand a bit about how schools use energy and how energy relates to pollution, let's consider: What makes a green school green?

2. Consider the answers from the previous activity's warmup. Ask students what they think will be different in the Average and Green Elementary School’s energy data.

3. Direct students back to the Playground to compare the Average Elementary School and Green Elementary School energy and occupant satisfaction data. Students should use the data to answer the questions on their worksheet.

  • What do they notice between the two schools' energy and occupant satisfaction data?
  • How satisfied are the occupants at the Green Elementary School versus the Average Elementary School?
  • How does that translate to the amount of energy being used to maintain that satisfaction?

4. Once students are finished comparing the schools and answering the questions, redirect their attention back to you. Ask students to share the differences they noticed between the data of each school and how they think that relates to the amount of energy used.

5. “We have looked at Green Elementary School several times. We know that it uses energy -- natural gas and electricity. The Average Elementary School does the same thing. However, the energy data in the Playground show that Green Elementary uses less energy.”

6. Direct students to My School District → Building Learners School District → Scores tab.

alt text

7. “Green Elementary has higher (better) scores for the Energy and Human Experience categories.”

8. “On the Carbon tab, we can see that the Green Elementary also has significantly lower total greenhouse gas emissions. Green Elementary emits 207.5 metric tonnes of CO2 per year, compared to the Average School’s 309.5 metric tonnes of CO2 per year.”

alt text

9. Direct students to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Greenhouse Gas Calculator to input the difference in emissions and calculate how much energy that is equivalent to.

10. "That's equivalent to 21.7 passenger cars being take off the road for a year, 11,477 gallons of gasoline consumed, 1.4 tanker trucks' worth of gasoline, and 13 million smartphones charged!"

11. "The high-performing green elementary school saved a tremendous amount of money and carbon output by being more efficient. What kinds of things could the average elementary school do to improve their energy consumption?"

12. Explain to students that as a class they will develop ten classroom rules to save energy. For ten minutes students will break into groups of four to brainstorm energy-saving classroom rules. Then, the class will reconvene and agree on 10 classroom energy rules. Once the 10 rules are agreed upon, create and hang up a sign with construction paper and markers to display the rules. Following completion, explain that everyone in the class must remember and follow these rules. Potential rules include:

  • Unplug electronics that use standby power when not in use, turn off electronic equipment when done using
  • Turn of lights when daylight and natural light is available, turn off lights when classroom is not in use
  • Close shades on weekend and nights to prevent heating when classroom is empty, close windows on weekends and nights to prevent increased HVAC system usage

Ask students to reflect and answer the following questions before the end of the class:

  • How and why does a school use energy?
  • What is the relationship between energy use and greenhouse gas emissions?
  • What are the differences in energy and emissions between an average school and a high-performance green school?
Additional teaching tips

If you would like to complete this lesson by showing information about your own school's building performance data, take these steps to set up your school's Arc profile. Note: an Arc profile for your school can be displayed to students via one device, while you are logged in.

Take these steps:

1. Collect this information about your school:

  • Gross Floor Area: Generally, the gross floor area is the sum of the floor areas of the spaces within the building, including basements, mezzanine and intermediate-floored tiers, and penthouses.
  • Operating Hours: Typically, review the average time the building operates during the weekday and if this changes during the weekend.
  • Occupancy: The number of people typically in the building. Ensure this number includes any visitors to the building and any part time staff members

2. Go to
3. Login using your Learning Lab or USGBC login credentials
4. Navigate to "Projects" and " + Add a Project"
5. Enter in the required information to set up your school's profile. Once complete, you are ready to work with your school's building manager and principal to begin uploading operating data (energy, water) for your school.

Reflection Questions
  • How and why does a school use energy? (Schools use energy to heat, cool, power, light, and ventilate the building; and to make the building comfortable for its occupants and a good place to teach and learn.)
  • What is the relationship between energy use and greenhouse gas emissions? (The more energy used/consumed, the more greenhouse gasses are emitted into the atmosphere.)
  • What are the differences in energy and emissions between an average school and a high-performance green school? (A high-performing green school will use less energy and therefore, have less greenhouse gas emissions than an average school. This is because the high-performing building is more efficient and uses less energy to power, cool, heat, and ventilate than the average school building.)
Standards assessment

Next Generation Science Standards
High School

  • ESS2-4: Use a model to describe how variations in the flow of energy into and out of Earth’s systems result in changes in climate.
  • ESS3-2: Evaluate competing design solutions for developing, managing, and utilizing energy and mineral resources based on cost-benefit ratios.
  • ESS3-4: Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.
  • PS3-1: Create a computational model to calculate the change in the energy of one component in a system when the change in energy of the other component(s) and energy flows in and out of the system are known.

Middle school

  • ESS3-4: Construct an argument supported by evidence for how increases in human population and per-capita consumption of natural resources impact Earth's systems.
  • ESS3-5: Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.

This lesson was made for students to use their own device to explore the Arc Digital Playground. This lesson can be modified so that the teacher displays the Playground for all students to see and follow along.

In the lessons, students will use their own or shared device to navigate the Arc Digital Playground. There is no login required and students can manipulate the data within the platform without permanently editing the data.

Professional Development Opportunities

If you want to learn more about using your school data to teach sustainability and STEM concepts to students, check out the Building Learners program.

Building Learners engages students through real world, project based learning about their school's environmental impact and sustainability. Pairing standards-aligned, hands-on lessons about sustainability, such as this lesson, and a robust building sustainability benchmarking and tracking tool, Arc, this program uses your school building as a laboratory to teach STEM topics as well as engage students in action projects that develop skills and knowledge that can be applied across a range of subject areas and career pathways.

Building Learners comes with five training modules, as well as curriculum and access to a green building professional who can support a teacher's classroom work.

Think the Building Learners program would help take your work to the next level? Visit the Building Learners page to learn more.