When stepping back a little, we can notice each building we come into contact with somehow plays a part in altering our planet and those who inhabit it. For example, LED bulbs in lighting fixtures are more energy efficient compared to halogen lighting. Windows within a classroom setting can improve test scores. ADA accessibility within buildings allow equal access for all.

According to research completed by MU’s very own Dr. Laura Cole, green buildings and green modifications to structures “can make significant contributions to solving energy and atmosphere challenges and will require an increasingly knowledgeable workforce to design, build and maintain.”

Prior to completing research on green buildings and green building literacy, Dr. Cole graduated from MU with a degree in the same department she now teaches in: architectural studies. While her career path was not initially focused on sustainability, the firm she worked for upon graduation offered each employee the opportunity to become a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) accredited professional. And as life would have it, the more Cole learned about LEED, the more fascinated she became with the energy and environmental design world.

Cole went on to earn her Ph.D. in Architecture and Natural Resources and Environment from the University of Michigan, where she began exploring the contributions of school designs to environmental education.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize the impact buildings have on our environment in terms of material use, energy use, the resources, the light, the water, and so on,” Cole said when describing why she became so passionate about this niche of architecture. “Everything courses through buildings and is at our fingertips to use and misuse.”

In 2015, Cole joined MU full-time as an assistant professor of architectural studies and has since gone on to publish several research papers regarding the importance of green building education which is helping to shape how building designs and functions are used as part of the curriculum in K-12 settings (see here).

“In some ways, if I’m successful in the green building design fundamentals course (that I teach) it would be to open eyes just a little bit to the way the built environment shapes us and is shaped by us so that you can advocate for different practices,” Cole said. “You can be a better occupant of buildings if you’re more aware of the impact the buildings have on the environment.”

Throughout Cole’s graduate studies and career, her path has been shaped by how to best deliver “effective green building pedagogy and help foster green building literacy” for the public. As Cole explained, architects, engineers and designers receive “intense” green building training, but everyone else may be less familiar with why or how such building models are significant.

“One of my first pilot studies when I got to Mizzou was working with the Columbia Public School system to look at a sweet little green building over at Grant Elementary,” Cole said. “And we got in there to try to understand how and if they use that green building to help advance classroom teaching.”

Cole’s research team hopes the pilot project provides evidence for funding a full blown energy literacy and green building curriculum that would help students use their school buildings to gain a better understanding of energy and to help the students learn how one little school building connects to the ecosystem and infrastructure as a whole.

“Typically when I’ve done my research along the way I’ve gotten shuffled into the science education, because everyone puts sustainability into science education, but clearly we get into the aesthetics of green,” Cole explained. “You can get into history and place-based learning, and all kinds of great things that kind of extend beyond the typical scientific way of thinking.”

Looking at her research work collectively, Cole said at first she was surprised by schools that had extremely green buildings but did not incorporate the structure’s design into learning opportunities for the students. However, as she conducted quantitative survey work and a photo project with students, as well as focus groups with teachers she realized how this problem of disconnect could occur.

“I collected data in a lot of different ways and it helped me understand there are barriers to using these tools (within the green buildings),” Cole said. “It’s like giving someone a really fancy piece of technology. If you don’t translate it and help give them curriculum and help them understand ‘how does your building work’ and then ‘how do you translate that to meet the assessment goals in your classroom’, if that gap isn’t getting filled then that disconnect will continue.”

As Cole continues her research within the community and teaching at the university, she hopes that disconnect will eventually cease to occur. She uses her talents to help provide as much aid and understanding to this area of sustainability because Cole recognizes the need and how her own skillset falls into solving environmental, economic and social issues as a whole.

“If we can improve knowledge of green building strategies and knowing how to act, to reduce resource use then we’re a step closer to solving those problems,” Cole said. “For me if I try to think too big picture I get overwhelmed and I feel I’m not achieving my goals. If I can put the boundaries a little closer I can make an achievable goal that fits into the bigger picture.”

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