Visions for sustainable building in the education system courtesy the National Building Museum.

Right now, 60 million American kids make their way each day to an elementary, middle or high school. A quarter of those students—14 million—attend class in "deteriorating" public schools with "falling ceiling tiles, leaking roofs, and moldy walls" among other indignities. According to the National Education Association:

At least a third of America’s 80,000 public schools are in need of extensive repair and at least two-thirds have unhealthy environmental conditions.

A Center for Green Schools report estimates that America's public schools will undergo $542 billion in updates and modernization over the next decade. And districts could use that money for buildings that conserve energy, cut down on waste, and make students healthier. "When we talk about a quality education, we talk about the 'who' and the 'what' - teachers and curriculum - but we don't talk about the 'where,'" Rachel Gutter, director of the group affiliated with the U.S. Green Building Council, told the Associated Press earlier this month. "That needs to change."

In the abstract, most everyone agrees. But defining what, exactly, "green building" means in the education system is a different question altogether. That's the thesis of a new exhibit at the National Building Museum (on display through January 5, 2014) which culls examples nationwide of innovative design and curriculum.

Here are a couple of the best examples we saw of schools trying, in one way or another, to create structures that are a bit gentler on Mother Nature.

1. Build your playground completely from recycled plastics. Specifically, from the plastic bottles your students bring in to recycle over the year. That is what W. Fred Scott Elementary School in Thomasville, Georgia, did.

A playground made out of recycled plastics. (Spencer Creek Recreational Products)

2. Make your portable classrooms greener. 7.5 million students attend school in portable classrooms. To house those students, Perkins+Will has developed Sprout Space, a "high-performance modular classroom." The pod uses only toxin-free materials like wool and rigid foam for insulation. Special cavities between insulation layers allow air to circulate more freely. There are plenty of windows, a recycled steel frame and solar panels.

3. Turn the top of your parking garage into your football field. In 2009, Binghamton High School in upstate New York installed a roof-top athletic track on top of a parking garage. The turf is hyper-absorbent, allowing the school to harvest and re-use rain water. It also cuts down on the building's temperature and reduces the urban heat island effect.  

Binghamton High School's rooftop track and football field. (AirField Systems/Flickr)

4. Make walking to school easier. Studies have shown that students who bike or walk to school concentrate better than their bus-riding peers. River Crest Elementary School, in Hudson, Wisconsin, made more walking and biking possible by building a path underneath a busy road that leads directly to the school. Other school districts have drafted special walking maps for students that outline the safest routes and offered tip sheets on safer walking habits

5. Use your windows to your advantage. The Andrew H. Wilson charter school was damaged beyond repair in Hurricane Katrina. It, along with 87 other schools in New Orleans, was brought back online as part of the city's environmentally focused School Facilities Master Plan. In addition to some classic environmental moves -- every building is LEED certified, solar panels generate electricity and a vat collects rainwater for landscape irrigation -- the building designers installed big windows that let in lots of light. That means less money spent on electricity. And the students created "light diffusers" (sort of like stained-glass windows) to cut down on heat and reduce the AC bill.

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