SimpleSteps

It all started with a new school program called Cool the Earth that is teaching kids in kindergarten through grade eight how and why it’s important to reduce their carbon emissions. It’s a free and adaptable extracurricular program that is taking U.S. schools by storm. Since launching in 2007, Cool the Earth has reached 59,654 students in 297 schools and Girl Scout troops across the U.S. and saved close to 1 billion pounds of heat-trapping carbon from being emitted.

Cool the Earth is a grassroots nonprofit based in Marin County in California that was created by Carleen and Jeff Cullen, two concerned parents eager to find practical ways to tackle climate change and encourage others to do the same. After having difficulty motivating their peers to be more environmentally friendly, the Cullens developed the Cool the Earth curriculum that seeks to empower kids to single-handedly fight climate change at home. They first tried the program out at their children’s school, Bacich Elementary in Kentfield, Calif., and it has been spreading rapidly ever since. 

It begins with teachers performing an educational play in school assembly that pits polar bears against the villainous Mr. Carbon, who is threatening their survival. “The kids really love watching their teachers perform in the play,” says parent Joann Bellistri, who ran the program at St. Patrick Elementary School in Huntington, N.Y. “It’s a great way to launch environmental awareness and a really fun experience.”

Then students each take home a book of 20 coupons (which are also all provided online) that includes a variety of ways to help protect the environment from biking to school and using a reusable lunch bag to taking shorter showers and using more efficient light bulbs. The coupon books are a mix of kid-only tips and low-cost or even money-saving family actions. Once students have completed an action, they return the coupon to their teacher to be rewarded with a playing card featuring an endangered species.

So far, students in participating schools have taken more than 125,092 actions to save over 95 million pounds of carbon, and counting.

The program relies on a local parent or teacher to administer the curriculum, however, Cool the Earth provides all the necessary step-by-step materials to run the program successfully. Everything from a program manual, planning calendar, and progress posters to skit costumes, coupons and playing cards are provided free upon signing up. Then each year, schools are required to renew their enrollment in the program to receive a box of new coupon books with different actions.

“This is such a simple pre-packaged program,” says parent Helena Flecker, who introduced Cool the Earth to her children’s school, Lloyd Harbor Elementary in Huntington. “You sign up online and a box arrives with all these incredible materials; it’s so clear and straightforward to implement. The impact on the environment is enormous!”

Just a few weeks after receiving coupon books, kids from Lloyd Harbor performed more than 1,500 actions at home to reduce their carbon emissions.

In the spring of 2010, Cool the Earth collaborated with a behavior change researcher, senior scientist June Flora of Stanford University, to assess the efficiency and impact of its program. Preliminary results from the study show that 35 percent of students are taking two or more actions at schools running the Cool to Earth program for the first time. 

“We've found that kids are incredibly motivating when it comes to behavioral change within a family,” says communications director Jenny Jedeikin. “Parents hear things like don't buy bottled water or use plastic bags all the time, but adults are set in their ways. When kids find out that this is damaging to the environment, they become inspired.”

The kids felt such a sense of responsibility to share their newfound eco-habits, Flecker notes, that she remembers overhearing one student instructing another in the school’s cafeteria: “‘No, no, that doesn’t go in that garbage container, that goes over here in recycling. Remember … we have to recycle.’”

Overall students and their families at each participating school are saving about 450,000 pounds of carbon per year (based on the average number of returned coupons). Many of the coupons also help families save money on energy and water bills with actions like turning off unnecessary lights, powering down video games when they’re not in use or turning off the water while brushing teeth.

 “When I read about this program I just thought it was a no brainer,” Flecker says. “This beautifully pre-packaged program can make a major impact right away.” 

This article was reprinted with permission from SimpleSteps.org.