This school in Union County is preparing students for sustainable energy careers

MONROE, N.C. — Whether it’s in the robotics classroom, tree nursery, or around the compost bins, kids at Parkwood Middle School aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Science teacher Theresa Moats-Platt got the efforts started through her environmental club, which was looking for ways to make the school more sustainable, while also applying the lessons they learn in class.

By the 2023-2024 school year those efforts spread across the district, evolving into the Union County Public Schools Sustainable Energy Academy. The K-12 curriculum follows through elementary, middle, and high school in the Parkwood Cluster, allowing students to explore issues around energy efficiency, technology, sustainable resources, and food production.

Andrew Houlihan, the district superintendent, wants the program to be an opportunity for students of all ages to get exposed to one of the fastest-growing industries in the Carolinas.

“We’re really trying to build a college and career pathway around the future workforce in this region and in this state,” he said.

For Moats-Platt, it began with a composting program. She and her environmental club wanted to find a way to keep all the cafeteria food waste from going straight to the landfill and put it to better use. They started collecting food scraps and, in partnership with Union County, got leaves and grass trimmings to mix into compost.

The process reduces methane emissions, allowing the waste to break down faster, and gives students a hands-on lesson in the carbon cycle.

“Carbon gets a bad rep, but carbon is a building block of life,” Moats-Platt said, “We just need to get the carbon in the right place.”

Through composting, that carbon is converted into high-quality dirt, which the students then get to put to use in their vegetable garden or in one of Analise Ritter’s agriculture classes. There, the middle school students planted a tree nursery last spring and over their three years of class, they’ll raise them and eventually plant the saplings at another Union County school before starting the process over.

“They learn the fundamentals of taking care of a plant, how much water does it need, how much sunlight, how much nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium,” Ritter said.

Meanwhile, in robotics class, students learn about wind turbines and the solar industry; high school students get certification opportunities or the potential to explore internship or pre-apprenticeship programs.

“We’re exposing them to possible careers that they may be interested in, bringing awareness to this theme and this curriculum and beginning that journey at an early age,” Houlihan said.

For Moats-Platt, she said it’s been amazing to watch the program grow and expand.

“I am so very grateful and actually, really impressed with the response from the community from the administration,” she said.

Ultimately though, she said the most rewarding part of the experience is watching the lessons she and others in the academy are teaching go beyond the classroom, inspiring others to create a more sustainable world.

“When we are making decisions we need to ask ourselves, ‘Is this good for children?’ And if it’s not good for children we need to not do it,” she said.

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Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.