Case Studies

Michal Healy – Santa Clara Unified School District

Facilities director energizes students with sustainable tech

When most students eat their school-issued lunches, they don’t know where the food comes from.

Typically, they can assume it’s been mass-produced, frozen or canned. Students at Santa Clara Unified School District, however, don’t need to guess. Their food is grown on campus.

“We run a farm here where we grow the food ourselves, harvest it and use it in our cafeterias,” says Michal Healy, the district’s director of facility development and planning.

Michal Healy | Director, Facility Development and Planning | Santa Clara Unified School District

Michal Healy | Director, Facility Development and Planning | Santa Clara Unified School District

The California-based K-12 district owns an 11-acre farm with planted fruit trees and row crops. Based on what’s in season, students are served fresh citrus, avocado, kale, cauliflower, broccoli and more, with the ingredients often used in salads and other dishes.

Agriculture and sustainability are present throughout the district, which also has a nature center and many solar panels, as well as multiple environmental classes. Healy and her team are working with the district’s sustainability committee to reduce electricity and water usage as part of a Climate Awareness Resolution and a Water Reduction Resolution.

“I want to help the district engage with sustainability at all levels and make it realistic so that it translates to the education of the students,” she says. “We’re hoping that giving this information to educators will allow for more flexibility in what and how they teach because it will be readily available to them and the students.”

Tracking progress

While Healy and her team have already been installing LED lights in schools, they’re now looking to create further savings by installing building and energy management systems in portables and other buildings that don’t have them. These will include sensors that adjust lights or use a lower setting when the lights aren’t in use.

The team has also installed new air conditioning systems in the schools and, because of the energy savings from the LED lights, Healy says energy bills haven’t increased. She says making this information available through a dashboard will allow math and science teachers to use real time data in their lesson plans.

Michal Healy | Director, Facility Development and Planning | Santa Clara Unified School District

T he district is currently working to create online dashboards that track electricity and water usage and savings. When they’re done, they’ll be used internally by the district and be accessible to the public.

This approach has already proven successful with a dashboard the district uses to track solar usage. Six of the district’s 31 schools use solar panels to generate some electricity and Healy is hoping to add more. One middle school gets 92 percent of its energy for the year from solar. Healy says the dashboard is used in middle school environmental leadership classes and an AP environmental science class to show students how solar energy is generated and used at their schools.

In the future, she says she and her team would like to work with the teachers to provide hands-on lessons. In the meantime, however, she’ll continue using technology.

Tuning in to nature

In October 2022, Healy and her team worked with the IT team to install cameras and Wi-Fi at the district’s nature center. The almost two-acre center was created by two teachers in 1969 who wanted to transform an underused parking lot. It’s representative of the entire California ecosystem, Healy says, and has a bog, ponds and redwood trees.

While students go to the center for field trips, they don’t often get to see the wildlife that visits. The cameras, which are solar powered, allow students to track racoons, hawks, turtles and more as they move about the center, so they can better understand their behavior. Healy also wants to install a live camera in one of the center’s bird houses and one underwater in the pond so students can watch the bird and fish eggs hatch.

“The opportunities we have with the cameras and the ability to record what happens through the seasons and then incorporate that into lesson plans is so exciting and will create better real-life learning experiences,” she says.

Michal Healy | Director, Facility Development and Planning | Santa Clara Unified School District

Cameras and Wi-Fi have also been installed at the produce farm, which is adjacent to the nature center. The goal, Healy says, is to create time lapse videos of plants growing so students can better understand “the process from seed to harvest.” Students already visit the farm in science classes, so the cameras will allow them to start experiments in the field and track the progress in the classroom.

A weather station has also been installed at the nature center. According to Healy, it allows students to monitor air and soil moisture and temperature through nodes that can be placed up to 1,000 feet away from the station. They can track this online as they study how soil temperature differs in various environmental conditions, she says. For example, the soil conditions are different in the middle of the farm than in the redwood forest area of the nature center.

Lasting impact

In addition to making learning more engaging, Healy says she hopes these tools have an effect on students outside of the classroom.

“When you show students the tangible impacts of sustainability from a young age, the hope is that they become lifelong environmental stewards and integrate these practices into their life,” she says.

Healy has worked around students for most of her career. After earning her bachelor’s degree in architecture from California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, she spent nearly five years as a job captain at Rainforth Grau Architects in Sacramento. She then was hired as the director of planning and design at Marysville Joint Unified School District.

Michal Healy | Director, Facility Development and Planning | Santa Clara Unified School District

After six years, Healy was promoted to director of facilities, where she oversaw construction, planning and energy management for the northern California district. She started at Santa Clara Unified School District in December 2016.

Healy manages all non-bond construction and facilities projects. She’s currently working with architects on developing master plans for each school and finding ways to create more efficiencies. One of her goals is for the district to be 100 percent electric and to use no gas energy.

While the environment is top of mind for her, the main driver behind her work is the students.

“Humans are impacted by their surroundings, whether it’s the lighting or the air, and having a good learning environment is crucial,” Healy says. “Knowing that students are in these spaces for so much time each day and knowing that you can impact how a student feels and learns, it makes me want to do the best I can for them.”

View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. IV 2023 Edition here.

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