Students from Upper Perkiomen High School helped create a new green roof garden display for the Ambler Arboretum.

Ninth grade Upper Perkiomen High School student Eva McCormick wasn't familiar with green roof technology concepts. For her and about 20 other students, however, that changed quickly thanks to a hands-on green roof project they became instrumental in completing for the Ambler Arboretum of Temple University.

"I learned that there is a whole system that goes into developing a green roof. It's not just planting plants — there are layers below the plants and the types of soil that are important. I just learned today that you shouldn't plant in a straight line," said McCormick, who along with fellow students Kyra Lesko, Regan Fiorito, Ryan Graf, Ava Steinman and Jessica Traynor, visited Temple Ambler on May 1 to help put the finishing touches on a working green roof display that will stand in front of the Ambler Intercollegiate Athletics Field House for years to come. "Hands-on projects like this are better for me as a student — I like being able to move around, plan out projects and interact as a team. I know we built it to last. Everyone can walk through here and see the green roof structure and I'll know I had a part in that."

According to Ambler Arboretum Director Kathy Salisbury, the green roof display created by students in Upper Perkiomen High School's "Xlab" replaces a display built on the same site in 2009. The Athletics Field House Green Roof, developed with a $50,000 grant from PECO, was first unveiled in 2005. The display, like the green roof it represents, is comprised of several layers including, from top to bottom, the vegetation, growing medium, filter fabric, drainage tile, felt, rubber membrane and roof deck.

"After many years, the old green roof display had fallen into severe disrepair. I spoke to Upper Perkiomen High School Technology Education teacher Dan Moyer, who oversees the high school's Xlab, and asked if maybe his students could recreate the display," she said. "At the time, he had a student who was heading to college for sustainability studies and he thought it would be a good opportunity for her to take on a leadership role and learn more about sustainability. We created a goal to have this display last longer than the original and be made out of sustainable materials where possible and practicable."

According to Moyer, students in Upper Perkiomen's Xlab maker space work on collaborative projects and independent projects, which often involve a community service component.

"Xlab, which started at the high school in 2012, consists of technology education classes that involve a great deal of critical thinking, problem-solving, and hands-on learning. We focus on passion projects for students. We give our kids a basic background on the technologies that are available and then give them the opportunity to explore the things that interest them," he said. "A project like the green roof display is a good example of giving the students the opportunity to do something they might not typically be exposed to. Initially we had one of our engineering classes draw up the design for the display — they took the original display apart and developed the new design to include all of the components."

Moyer said the 15 to 20 students that worked on the project overall approached it as they would when working with a real-world client.

"We made ordering sheets, budgeted everything out and went through client meetings with Kathy — here's what it's going to cost and here are a few options to consider. Once we figured out what we wanted to do, we went through the ordering process and everything was delivered to the school," he said. "One of my goals as a teacher is to give kids real-world experience so that when they leave Upper Perkiomen High School, they can make decisions about their future based on experiences that they've had in high school. I always tell them to find a job that they like and are interested in rather than just going out and finding something to do. I think experiences like this help those kids make decisions in a more informed way."

Upper Perkiomen High School senior Jessica Traynor, who assisted with some of the finishing construction elements in addition to putting the growing media and plants in place on the students' May 1 visit to campus, said she had some familiarity with green roof structures thanks to an AP environmental science class, but helping to build one was another experience entirely.

"I think the benefit of this project specifically is that it showed us how green roofs are used and how they can help our environment. It's a self-sufficient structure and it's possible to create them in a variety of situations," she said. "It's been terrific that with many of these projects, you're the one moving them forward — they are your responsibility and you're required to get hands-on with them. It's awesome to know that this display is going to be used in the years ahead by university students and I was a part of that as a high school student."

Salisbury said the new display will be "a place where students can look at the construction of a green roof more closely in a wide variety of classes."

"We will also use it to talk about sustainability on campus and beyond. Working with others lends new insights and perspectives to projects — by combining knowledge, resources, experience and expertise, we are able to accomplish more when we collaborate than if we tried to do something on our own," she said. "We have a new relationship with a local high school, and they were able to create something with real-world applications. They had to make sure it was built to proper specifications; they had an opportunity to interact with a real client and ask questions and get clarification, which is an important life skill; and they learned the mechanics of sustainable practice and construction."

Ryan Graf, a junior at Perkiomen High School who has a particular interest in residential construction and management, said hands-on experience like the green roof project "will help us in the future."

"What we do first is we take a step back and look at the project as a whole. We start coming up with different ways that we could develop and build the structure and then get a bunch of designs and people together and plan it out — what might work and what might not," said Graf, who, along with his fellow students, had the opportunity to tour the Ambler Arboretum and the Tyler School of Art and Architecture Greenhouse Education and Research Complex during their visit to campus. "This project helped me understand construction and planning and, specifically, what goes into building a green roof. It means a lot to me because I can come back in the future and see how well the plants and the structure are doing and just know that I was a part of making that happen."