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Measuring your school's ecological footprint

Michael Van Tiel
Education Officer, Powerhouse Museum

The Powerhouse Museum aims for greater awareness of environmental and sustainability issues across the community. To advance this goal the Museum has developed an interactive educational web site called 'eco'tude: changing your school's ecological attitude [www.powerhousemuseum.com/eco'tude].

The eco'tude web site is an example of education for sustainability, a progressive form of Environmental Education where the focus is on developing critical thinking skills and the motivation for action. Eco'tude allows students to develop an awareness, understanding and appreciation of the impact their school is having on the physical environment.

The website empowers students to prepare the ground for change in their school by investigating activities and features capable of ready measurement, including consumption of energy, water, materials, and food, as well as waste generation. Transport to and from school, and the nature and use of school grounds and buildings are also evaluated. Eco'tude allows students to register on the website, and record the results of their environmental work online.


Measuring your 'ecological footprint' through the eco'tude calculator

An 'ecological footprint' is an estimate of the area of land a population, in this case a school, uses to produce all or part of the natural resources it consumes, and to assimilate the waste that this generates. It calculates the size of the school's impact on the Earth.

A footprint is measured in 'units'. Each unit corresponds to one hectare of biologically productive space — about the size of a standard playing field. As schools use resources from all over the world, and affect faraway places with their pollution, the footprint is the sum of these areas wherever they are on the planet.

A footprint is calculated by drawing together a range of data on resource use and waste assimilation from a variety of available sources. The size of a footprint can be calculated using different available data and assumptions. The eco'tude calculator has been specially designed for Australian schools and uses real Australian data and terminology.

The calculator takes pupils step-by-step through a range of questions. Students can either estimate the answers to these questions, or conduct an audit to investigate the questions and to get more accurate figures. The eco'tude calculator is compatible with existing audits schools use in developing their environmental management plans, but the website also provides an auditing toolkit. The audits in the toolkit not only help students with their estimates but they also assist them to identify, measure and understand what is happening within their school.

The audits fall into three broad categories. Historical audits involve the collection of data from sources such as bills, invoices and records. They are most commonly used to measure water and energy usage, but they can also be used to analyse school population trends and to monitor purchasing. Collecting this kind of data gives schools an understanding of ongoing usage costs and shows the results of actions undertaken. This is commonly known as setting a 'baseline'.

A second audit category consists of student and staff interviews and surveys to identify personal consumption choices. The audit is often called a 'snapshot' . The accuracy of the data is dependent on the sample size, time of the audit and external factors. The more people that participate, the more accurate the results are likely to be. Thirdly, during the 'walkthrough audit', school staff physically walk around the school inspecting all areas, noting the condition of items and their inefficiencies, and, when possible, suggesting ideas for improvements.

It is important to remember that the calculator should not be used a ranking tool to compare schools as many measurable factors are out of their control. It should be used by schools to map their own progress towards sustainability.

The eco'tude website has been funded through the Australian Government's Department of the Environment and Heritage Environmental Education Grants Program.

The Powerhouse Museum also has another free online ecological footprint calculator called Bigfoot. Bigfoot is a personal ecological footprint calculator and, like eco'tude, uses Australian data and terminology. Bigfoot is easy to use and a good introduction to the concept of ecological footprints.

The Powerhouse Museum welcomes and encourages feedback on its range of sustainability educational resources.



KLA

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