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Phipps' SEED Classroom aims to add to kids' curiosity

| Friday, June 5, 2015, 8:57 p.m.
Richard Piacentini, executive director for Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, in front of the Phipps’ new  SEED Classroom in Oakland on Tuesday, June 2, 2015.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Richard Piacentini, executive director for Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, in front of the Phipps’ new SEED Classroom in Oakland on Tuesday, June 2, 2015.
The Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens new SEED classroom in Oakland on Tuesday, June 2, 2015.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
The Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens new SEED classroom in Oakland on Tuesday, June 2, 2015.
Richard Piacentini, executive director for Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, gives a tour of the Phipps’ new  SEED Classroom in Oakland on Tuesday, June 2, 2015. The classroom includes a living wall of plants that are watered using collected rainwater.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Richard Piacentini, executive director for Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, gives a tour of the Phipps’ new SEED Classroom in Oakland on Tuesday, June 2, 2015. The classroom includes a living wall of plants that are watered using collected rainwater.

At Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, learning has never been greener.

Last month, the conservatory unveiled the nation's second-ever net-zero energy, fully sustainable, modular classroom.

The SEED (Sustainable Education Every Day) Classroom is designed to be an entirely self-sustained classroom that provides space where kids can receive hands-on learning opportunities, SEED cofounder Stacy Smedley says.

The classroom checks seemingly every box for environmental conservation — toxin-free; uses natural lighting; collects and filters hundreds of gallons of rainwater for its sink and composting toilets; aerates using the energy-efficient “Energy Recovery Ventilator” system; and produces and tracks energy using solar panels (almost 1,300 kilowatts produced in its first month).

The classroom is so “green” that its walls — referred to as “living walls” — allow students to plant and grow year-round vegetation in them.

“Kids have said that they want to live there,” Smedley says. “They feel like they're outside when they're inside.”

The classroom at Phipps will host science-education programs for thousands of children annually, as well as other educational and professional endeavors throughout the year.

The classroom, which is open for the public to tour from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays, is intended to illustrate to the important connection between people and plants, as well as how human health and environmental health are interconnected, says Richard Piacentini, Phipps executive director.

Many features of the classroom are designed to spark children's curiosity and provide hands-on education about energy conservation.

Children are able to, for example, turn the heat down for one day and see how many quantifiable kilowatts of energy production that saves, Smedley says.

“It's turning learning inside-out by allowing kids to do rather than opening a text book and reading,” she says.

The classroom's visible electrical wiring allows students to trace where their electrical energy is coming from, Smedley says. “Kids grow up in an environment that covers everything up,” she says. “Kids learn by seeing and asking questions.”

Due to a growing need for classroom space nationally, approximately one in three U.S. schools use modular units, according to the conservatory. However, many pose inherent problems, such as inadequate lighting and ventilation or are commonly cited for health risks, such as excess mold and high levels of toxins.

The SEED classroom avoids and mitigates many of problems faced by other modular homes by maximizing daylight and fresh air, among other measures, Smedley says.

“A lot of portable units are only designed to last 10 to 15 years,” Piacentini says. “This is designed to be here forever.”

Last month, in order to validate itself as self-sustaining, the classroom began a 12-month criteria test to prove it is “zero-energy,” he says.

The classroom at Phipps is only the second is be unveiled nationally, the first was constructed in May 2014 at Perkins Elementary School in Seattle.

“It's become way less about building and more about what the building can teach,” says Smedley, an architect from Seattle. “That's been pretty cool.”

Matthew Zabierek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mzabierek@tribweb.com or 412-320-7948.

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