Solar Energy Blossoming at St. Monica’s

Story written by Katie Kizer

One of the most basic relationships in our world is that of a garden and its photosynthetic bond with the sun. Recently, the sun and its blooming kin have taken on an entirely new purpose at St. Monica Academy in Chicago: to power. The Chicago Botanic Garden has joined forces with this flagship school to introduce an initiative to create an entirely green curriculum at St. Monica’s, including a solar installation. St. Monica owes its “Academy” classification to this alliance, as it was awarded by the Archdiocese of Chicago for a “ground-breaking educational initiative,” otherwise known as SEEDS, Student Environmental Education and Development Studies. Developed by the Chicago Botanic Garden and implemented by St. Monica’s, SEEDS is a unique curriculum designed to incorporate “environmental, project-based studies throughout all subjects and grades.” In other words, lesson plans of varying subjects are infused with environmental science and green awareness; a movement that is light-years ahead of its sister schools.

The solar project at St. Monica Academy was also made possible with the assistance of Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, Commonwealth Edison, NEED, and the Foundation for Environmental Education. It is a 1 KW solar PV installation on the roof, and it is used to supplement some of the daily energy use. The bonus of these solar installations is that not only are they providing surrounding communities with a positive example of how to utilize green technologies, but the children within the school are growing up with these lessons about renewable energies. They are able to be a part of something that many grown-ups in our world will never experience: watching the actual process in which a solar photovoltaic array captures sunlight and brings it into the classroom. I am confident that I can speak on behalf of all my 21 year-old peers when I say that this experience is way cooler than any build-it-yourself battery project that we ever conducted in junior high science class.

Solar energy is not the only positive contribution that St. Monica’s has made to our Mother Earth. The school is also actively redesigning much of its campus in more efficient and renewable ways. This includes replacing the black pavement with pervious or high albedo pavement, which will allow for less storm water runoff and air conditioning use. This is because of the lightweight nature of the new pavement and its ability to lower surrounding temperatures. St. Monica also plans to plant an extensive amount of new vegetation on the grounds, everywhere from the play areas to sidewalks and the new “Green Roof” which also reduces storm water runoff and increases insulation of the building. The school will also be constructing two new greenhouses, an urban farm within which the students can interact and participate, a native habitat area where wildlife can flourish and individuals can learn about these processes, and many more exciting developments.

The Chicago Botanic Garden played such a critical role in the “greening” of St. Monica both in regards to the physical campus and in the classroom. In fact, none of this would have been possible without the organization’s contribution. The SEEDS curriculum is revolutionary for a private school such as St. Monica, as it is acting as a pilot school for future possible green schools within the Archdiocese of Chicago. Sophia Siskel, the President and CEO of the Chicago Botanic Garden, hopes that SEEDS “provides inspiration and guidance for schools throughout the Archdiocese and beyond.” Additionally, a woman named Anna Viertel of the Chicago Botanic Garden discusses the benefits of the SEEDS curriculum and accompanying ‘green’ renovations. “Time spent working in the school’s gardens and greenhouses will cultivate practical, vocational skills to enrich students’ lives and the lives of their families and communities. By creating an awareness of the world they will inherit, we are preparing them to succeed in it.”

My experiences in writing stories about these projects always differ depending on the level of excitement on behalf of the people involved. After all, such excitement is contagious when you’re talking about such inventive technology. When I conducted my first interview for this piece with a woman named Elaine Harrison, Director of Communications, I was reminded how important this work truly is. I was moved by Elaine’s incredible passion about her work and the great progress that St. Monica has made. She and the rest of the hardworking faculty at St. Monica have such enthusiasm for making the world a better place that I have walked away with a greater sense of self-efficacy and the confidence that this generation will continue to promote green technology into the future.

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