Framing Experience: Exploring Student Photography to understand Youth Experiences in Green School Interiors

Presented by: Dr. Laura Cole, Elke Altenburger

The modern green building movement looks to green buildings for more than technical environmental performance. Increasingly, scholars and practitioners are asking how green buildings can support human health, wellbeing, and culture change. Among the many possible psycho-social dynamics occurring within green buildings, this work looks specifically at the potential for green buildings to be educational, or “3-Dimensional Textbooks” for environmental sustainability (Nair & Fielding, 2005; Taylor, 1993). Schools, where there is already a mission to educate, provide ideal venues for exploring the intersection of design and environmental education. Further, the LEED for Schools rating systems award credit for the use of the school building as a “teaching tool” for sustainability education (United States Green Building Council, 2008). We have much to learn, however, about the prospects for green buildings to foster “Green Building Literacy,” a term that is used to describe the attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors associated with green building design (Cole, 2015). This study is part of a larger mixed-methods study that involved survey research, student photography, interviews, and focus groups in multiple school settings. This presentation will focus specifically on the results of the photography project and semi-structured interviews (n=29), which explored what students think and know about their green campus buildings. The photography project was modeled after Photovoice methods used in a variety of disciplines to encourage research participants to frame the conversation from their unique points of view (e.g., Strack, 2004). The research took place in three unique green school settings that are on a spectrum of more to less “green,” where each school is given a pseudonym that evokes its core mission. The Ethics School has a well-established green campus and sustainability is deeply woven into the school mission. The Arts School has a new construction green building and a minimal sustainability mission. The College Preparatory School has no sustainability mission and a partial green building renovation. The question central to this arm of the study is: Do students who experience a total green environment versus a partial green environment have better outcomes for environmental education generally, and Green Building Literacy specifically? A grounded coding process with photography and interview transcripts yielded several key themes. The most prominent finding is that strong sustainability missions at the administrative level appear to make a difference for student environmental education outcomes. The study further illuminates the ways in which a school’s philosophy of sustainability becomes crystallized in the interior design of the school and shapes student learning. This research additionally reveals the missed curricular opportunities, even on the greenest campus, to tie the green building into classroom learning. These findings are further buttressed by results of the quantitative survey research that revealed significant differences in Green Building Literacy across schools. Taken together, these results make a case for pulling sustainability deeper into a school’s mission, cultural practices, and curriculum to more fully realize the potential of teaching through green building design. The results further inform interior designers interested in the interiors of educational spaces, and the design strategies that can be used inside schools to deepen sustainability education.


  • Cole, L. B. (2015). Green Building Literacy in the School Building: a Study of Five Middle Schools in the United States. Children, Youth and Environments, 25(3), 145-174.
  • Nair, P., & Fielding, R. (2005). The Language of School Design: Design Patterns for 21st Century Schools: Designshare, Inc.
  • Strack, R., Magill, C., McDonagh, K. (2004). Engaging Youth Through Photovoice. Health Promotion Practice, 5(1).
  • Taylor, A. P. (1993). The Learning Environment as a Three-Dimensional Textbook. Children's Environments, 10(2), 170-179.
  • United States Green Building Council. (2008). LEED 2009 for Schools New Construction and Major Renovations. from
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