Turning down the bumpy dirt road, it was not clear what, if anything, was at the end but we continued, albeit at a slower pace than we had enjoyed on the paved road. Rounding the bend revealed a checkpoint where we discovered that we had arrived at the home of Green School in Bali. It was built in the middle of 20 acres of lush rainforest, tucked into the steep hillside of a valley that itself was carved out by the powerful Ayung River, which was the key to the school’s new project, dubbed Operation Rain or Shine – or OROS – for short.
The Green School in Bali is the brainchild of founder John Hardy who, in 2008 had just wrapped up a 20-year career in the jewelry industry and watched Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth which, in John’s words to us over dinner, “ruined his life” as it demanded action on his part. That action manifested itself in the establishment of the Green School in Bali, which aimed to transform education through several significant deviations from traditional brick and mortar schools: unconventional, progressive educational curriculum, the prolific use of sustainable construction materials and techniques, and by powering the school with renewable energy.
At Green School, the bamboo structures scream out without saying anything that this place is nothing like the brick and mortar schools that are so common in most cities around the world. The majority of the 74 structures on the property have been beautifully assembled from bamboo, which is arguably the world’s most sustainable construction-grade building material. Reaching mature sizes ready for harvest in just a few years and with a tensile strength similar to steel when mature, bamboo has all the makings of the construction material from the future but for one fatal flaw: termites can’t get enough of it.
This simple fact had relegated bamboo to short term usage…until recently. Studies found that termites are unable to digest bamboo that has been treated with boron, as it kills the protozoa in their guts that facilitate digestion of the stuff. Boron-treated bamboo is so offensive to the little critters that as soon as they detect the boron in the wood, they move on for easier eats. Green School’s beautiful bamboo buildings take advantage of this and utilize boron-treated bamboo to ensure its long-lasting, sustainable structures stand tall for decades.
The structures themselves are works of art and evoke playful, creative thoughts. Exploring the central building at the school, which has been labelled the ‘heart of school’ is akin to wandering the halls of a museum, with the rounding of every corner revealing yet another collection of artistic creations manifesting themselves in the walls, railings, lights and ceilings of the buildings instead of more traditional wood-framed creations.
The architectural creations sprinkled around the campus aren’t just sustainably built, they were built with the local climate in mind and as such, they lack walls. Open sides allow natural breezes to cool the interiors while the thatched rooftops, and raised floors keep Bali’s tropical torrential downpours from putting too much of a damper on the educational process. Fans have been installed to facilitate the cooling process in classrooms when nature doesn’t provide natural cooling during the dry season.
An Unconventional Education
Green School was established to bring the vision of progressive education rooted in sustainability that John and Cynthia Hardy had in mind for their children to life. The physical structures on the school grounds are evidence of this philosophy, and it permeates what happens in the classroom as well.
Green School opted to throw the traditional approach to education out the window and started from scratch when it came to its curriculum. Endless hours spent in a classroom were replaced with a project-based approach to skill building that shifts the educational focus from books to learning by tackling real-world challenges. Rote memorization and standardized testing went out the window, replaced by real world problems posed to its students with the support of Green School’s team of world class teachers, who guide students towards the lessons lurking in the details.
Students are made aware of their own personal footprint on the earth, and through Green Schools ‘integrated thematics’ approach to education that pulls multiple school subjects into each lesson, students learn both the business and the farming skills required to grow hydroponic crops and bring them to market. Overlapping subjects in real-world applications allows students to see the value of what they are learning in real life, instead of sitting in a classroom calculating the surface area of things they have never seen, or other such abstract exercises.
This unconventional approach to education has spawned leaders who have converted black market used fryer grease to biodiesel for Green School’s buses, spoken at the United Nations, and developed lines of sustainable clothing, among others. Green Schoolers Melati and Isabel Wijsen realized that the plastic bags so many Balinese use to get groceries home, take lunches to school, and other short-term uses were clogging up the streams, rivers, and beaches on their beautiful island home while adding very little value in their usable lives.
Their ability to address real-world challenges head on spawned the Bye Bye Plastic Bags movement that resulted in an island-wide ban of plastic bags in Bali, a raised awareness of plastic waste across the island and a global movement of 17 BBPB teams and activists looking to follow their lead in banning single-use plastics. The tools acquired at Green School were learned through the lens of social responsibility, and sustainability continues to spawn leaders and world changers hungry for positive change and who have the tools needed to make it happen.
Reading about the divergent educational curriculum and even seeing it in action, it would be easy to assume that because Green School is located in on a tropical vacation island, its campus looks like the jungle paradise from Lost and is consistently put up on a pedestal by global media outlets as the utopian version of school from some distant future that everything is perfect at Green School.
Green School isn’t perfect. Problems surface as staff and students live in the constant tension of teaching students to question authority and a healthy disregard for structure and rules, while also maintaining some semblance of order. Environmental Studies teacher at Green School Pak Noan shared with us that half of the land he had been cultivating as a garden for the last 3 years had been taken over by a nearby project with very little notice, and he’s not alone in running into bumps in the road.
Tension inevitably results in conflict, but it is through conflict that we learn and grow. Understanding that the addition of a chicken coop will add noise, new unpleasant smells, and extra work is balanced against the knowledge that raising chickens will teach valuable lessons to students and bring about new opportunities at the same time. Dreaming up and installing a hydroelectric vortex that taps into the power of the flowing river to provide electricity to the school inevitably faces the stark reality of muddy days digging out trenches, immense budgets, and rain storms that destroy months of hard work in a single afternoon.
Green School was founded on the belief that a full life is one that is lived in balance. The delicate tension of personal happiness, societal responsibility, and global responsibility come together in the beautiful smorgasbord of culture, environmentalism, the individual, and action.
Our passion, when fertilized, brings our unique contribution to our local community and to the world. Green School is the fertile ground that helps students find and fertilize their passions so that out of the fertile ground, responsible, action-oriented adults will blossom.
Running on Sunshine (and Hydro)
The Green School in Bali has an installation of solar panels that provide around 20% of its electricity needs, and the school has crafted a project that aims to tap into the abundant natural resources at the school to bridge the gap and power the school on 100% renewable energy. Dreams and vision are critical, but neither will fly without resources. Thankfully, the funds received from its 2017 win of the Zayed Future Energy Prize have been slated to do just that – to install a one-of-a-kind hydroelectric centrifugal vortex that taps into the power of the flowing river at the bottom of the valley.
The vortex has a theoretical generating capacity of 12,000 watts, which would provide the missing 80% of the school’s electricity consumption. Like many projects at Green School, the design and installation of the first iteration of the vortex was not successful, with Green School founder John Hardy dubbing it a “total failure” after a brutal storm flushed trees and other debris down the river, decimating the vortex. The common thread running through Green School’s curriculum is that the most valuable lessons in life are not learned when we succeed, but when we fail, and in that regard, the vortex has been a great instructor for students, teachers, and parents alike.
Construction of version two of the vortex is well underway with support from graduate students at the University of Cologne in Germany, and it includes capacity and infrastructure for pumped hydroelectric storage. Beyond just generating electricity, the system has the capability to use excess electricity generation to pump water up to a series of 17 holding tanks at the top of the hill that can then be uncorked to flow down the hill to generate electricity.
This pumped storage is a lower cost alternative to the small bank of lithium-ion batteries that were installed in parallel to the on-site photovoltaic solar array. Combined, these systems aim to enable the school to generate the electricity it needs in the wet season through hydroelectric generation and in the dry season from its solar panels.
The complexity of the energy generation and storage systems being installed at the school necessarily require the school to install a system to manage the flow of power. Enter the eHub. The eHub will be the first building at the school with walls – built with Super Adobe construction – because it will house the precious computers that will be tasked with monitoring and managing not just the electricity generation and storage, but also the electricity consumption around the school.
This is being done with the help of an army of Arduino microcomputers that have been distributed across the school with custom code that allows them to monitor electricity usage and report back all the dirty details to the eHub. This provides the missing link that project leaders hope will not only provide the data needed to manage the system but also serve as the perfect learning environment for the students.
Learning is a part of everything at Green School, and Operation Rain or Shine is no exception, with students being heavily involved in all aspects of the project, from putting up the Super Adobe walls of the eHub to analyzing the energy production from the solar panels and beyond. The hope is that the system would eventually evolve into an intelligent micro grid.
Raising a Generation of World Changers
Green School was founded with ambitious goals that challenged the fundamentals of education, all built on a foundation of environmental awareness and responsibility that rival the seminars put on by Al Gore and team. The results of the work at Green School are on display in the generation of world changers growing out of the school, who aren’t just armed with the tools to bring about change, but are also affecting change in the world today.
The time for change is now, and Green School has catalyzed a global shift in awareness through its students and through the global platform it has built for itself. Students around the world look to Green School as a beacon of hope for their generation and filled with hope, are moving forward with action in their own schools, communities, and nations around the world.
“Architecture lifts the heart and causes the person to dream.” John Hardy shared this simple truth with Arch Daily, and its fingerprints are all over the Green School campus. The impressive bamboo cathedrals of education at Green School serve as the physical manifestation of the inspirational lessons being taught in each classroom at Green School. They shout out that sustainable living is possible, and that the dreams and inspiration swirling in each student, staff, parent, and visitor at Green School can and should be eked out into the world for everyone to enjoy.
*This article was written for Masdar as part of a Zayed Future Energy Prize – now known as the Zayed Sustainability Prize – effort to highlight the impact made by past winners of the prize. All travel was paid for by Masdar.
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