Learning from Nature

By Nina Dudas & Drew Lavine

Posted March 20, 2019

Green Building United volunteers from the Living Building Challenge Community began a Project Based Learning (PBL) course with a lot of enthusiasm and ambition, but the actual success of the inaugural project with Upper Dublin High School surpassed even our own bold imaginations.

The Environmental Science PBL course is based on the philosophy and imperatives of the Living Building Challenge. The course explores in depth all seven Petals and twenty Imperatives required for a certified Living Building, as applied to the Robbins Park Environmental Education Center, a learning-lab building at the heart of this 38-acre public park. Along the way, students are researching, designing, and presenting to real project stakeholders and the public the strategies needed to transform the existing Center into a Living Building.


Since September 2018 the class has seen:

  • Over 400 community members introduced to the project

  • Over 30 experts in the classroom

  • Over 15 events including workshops, tours, and stakeholder meetings


“I don’t want this class to end” is a statement we often heard from the students in the fall months when we were still at the early stages of developing the environmental science class with them and their teacher, Mrs. Erin Loch. Since then, the students have developed an impressive, adaptive, and robust class structure that made possible their current achievements in design and activism for a regenerative approach to the built environment. They collaborated, argued, innovated, partnered, persevered through setbacks, and overcame internal and external obstacles. They built on their individual strengths, explored many avenues, and took hold of opportunities. In other words, they learned all the aspects of the integrative design process, which is the essence of any successful sustainable project.


Students at Robbins Park measure the permeability of various substrates used for green roofs, guided by Laura Hansplant, the volunteer expert on the Water Petal.

A core group of Green Building United volunteers and selected volunteer experts has been meeting twice monthly with the class - first to introduce an LBC Petal, then two weeks later to workshop with the students to help integrate their findings into the building design. Ahead of each Petal presentation, the volunteer petal experts prepared a list of topics for the students to research. In the collaborative classes with the volunteers, the students presented their research to their peers with feedback from the experts. Following the presentations, the students were broken out into small thematic groups for hands-on learning activities. In accompanying workshops each group of students presented on the strategies they developed to achieve the Petal Imperative requirements and how they advanced the design of the building and the surrounding area.

All this would be fairly straightforward if the class didn’t also devote significant time and effort into building a foundation on which this project could become a reality - a Living Environmental Center. To date, they have organized numerous community stakeholder meetings including an open house at their school attracting over 300 visitors who, over the course of the event, became project supporters. They also met with municipality officials to learn about the building code and to advocate for the removal of roadblocks contained in current regulations.

At a stakeholder meeting, students receive feedback from the community on the features they would like to see in the new building.

Seeing the students’ progress and their enthusiasm for the project, our volunteer group coordinated their midterm presentation at Jefferson University’s Sustainable Design Program, expanding the audience to include the Program Director Rob Fleming and a board of graduate students. This event featured a tour of Jefferson’s East Falls campus’ sustainable buildings and features an astounding and entertaining presentation by the students, and a design charrette led by Professor Fleming and facilitated by his students and the volunteers. The UDHS students demonstrated their grasp of the complex subject and the attention to nuances. They made us laugh, they got us on our knees solving puzzles, and they made some of us cry tears of joy and pride.

The design charrette in progress at the midterm presentation at Jefferson University’s East Falls campus

We would like to extend a very special thank you to our petal experts who have dedicated their time and knowledge to this amazing group of students:


And this May, you will have a chance to meet some of the students at the Sustainability Symposium Expo. We believe they deserve a seat at the table, so we got them one at the Symposium.

And keep an eye out in June, as the school year ends, for a final showcase of the project and the initiative to the Green Building United community and the public.


If you want to continue following the journey of the first LBC-based high school environmental science class, stay tuned to this space or follow our students on Facebook and Twitter where they post regular updates about their progress. If you want to get involved please email Drew Lavine at lavine@revisionarch.com

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