Initiatives of the École Manachaban Middle School and Cochrane High have been shortlisted for Emerald Awards in two different categories.

Manachaban's W.I.L.D.program for outdoor adventuring is a finalist in the educational category and the Cochrane High's sustainable development committee for the climate change challenge award.

Phase IX of the Cochrane High School’s Sustainable Development Committee was the installation of a 50.05 kWh photovoltaic system capable of off-setting 8.3 per cent of the school's electrical consumption from traditional carbon sources.

It took 18 months to accomplish and involved hundreds of hours of collective work plus some generous donations to make the $100,000-plus project possible.

Teacher Stephanie Bennett says they're excited about being shortlisted and she's proud of what the committee accomplished.

"Their intellect, their drive, their maturity, too, to be able to conduct themselves in the public and deal with real issues. By doing that, I hope the town has developed some confidence in our abilities."

"What I love about the committee is they’re always pushing the envelope. If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, hopefully, they've learned something in the process, as well."

And it has worked. It's been less than a year since the system has been in operation, and indications are it's making a difference.

"I couldn’t have dreamed of anything better. They are really working. We have now hit a threshold where we finally have enough panels and they are powerful enough that this is truly making a difference in the electrical consumption at the school."

The solar panel system is expected to save $2,299 per year with a 25 to 30-year lifespan. It will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 35 tonnes CO2e/year.

Trying economic times, even 18 months ago, meant the students had to be extremely creative and tenacious. Over 30 grant applications were made and their Adopt-A-Panel initiative was the most successful fundraiser of private funds.

Bennett says they are indebted to many companies and organizations for their financial contribution to this, and past projects. Many regular supporters couldn't contribute towards this particular project because of the downturn.

Donours were: platinum, Municipal Climate Change Action Centre, Fortis, and Totem Charitable Foundation; gold:  CEAC, APEX Builder Group, and Cochrane Rotary Club; silver,  Cochrane Activettes, Southridge Joint Venture, Jayman Homes, Mountain Toys Polaris, Great Things 'N' Store, and Sunterra Market.

This is the fourth time the CHS school committee has been shortlisted for their achievements. They won an Emerald for the first phase of their solar panel project in 2005.  

W.I.L.D. creator Nancy Pollard feels honoured to have been shortlisted for an award.

W.I.L.D., an acronym for Wisdom, Inquiry, Learning, Doing, is lauded by educators, students, and parents within the Rocky View School Division as a catalyst in developing outdoor skills they will continue to utilize throughout their lives.

For the last six school years, Pollard has been offering the specialized program in grade 8 at Manachaban. There's only room for 28 students each year and waiting lists are common.

It was the willingness of the school's leadership to endorse the program that attracted her to teach at the school.

"I live in Canmore but unfortunately, the school board here just wasn't interested in being able to do that kind of a program. When I got to Manachaban, the principal was so keen on this happening. Without support from principals, it doesn't happen."

Within the W.I.L.D. program, six distinct outdoor field excursions show exceptional leadership and creativity in educating students of all ages about environmental matters. These successive camps scaffold and build up wilderness skills.

Those skills include shelter building, map and compass work, water quality testing, survival camps, and developing skills you need in the outdoors, winter or summer.

"The whole idea is to get the kids outside and reconnecting with nature. The biggest thing is they spend so much time now on their phones and their computers. Project W.I.LD. gives them that reconnect with nature, to be comfortable in nature and be part of that environment."

Pollard instructs all of their subjects, with the exception of an option, and completes as much of it as possible in the outdoors and field trips.

Students take on an environmental action project and the end of the year cumulates with an environmental fair. This year they'll have to find a way to do it remotely, thanks to COVID-19.

She does have students spending time outdoors each day in their own backyards and prepare their nature journal to maintain the experiential, hands-on learning that is at the core of the program. Classtime is shared over ZOOM.

"It is so much fun seeing them, seeing their faces, hearing their voices. I'm trying to figure out how to make it more experiential and nature-based."

For the past 29 years, the Emerald Awards have recognized outstanding environmental achievements by businesses, organizations, educators, students, and individuals.

To the Cochrane area's credit, there have been numerous projects shortlisted for Emeralds over the years.

There have also been several winners.

Besides Cochrane High's committee, winners have included Clio Smeeton, of Cochrane Wildlife Reserve Society, who received an individual commitment award in 1996. The Spray Lake Sawmills was awarded in the business category in 2000 for its revolutionized approach to both forest management practices and product manufacturing. As well, Cochrane's Branches and Banks was recognized for a habitat restoration project in the community group category in 2003.

The award winners will be announced on June 2.