Saturday, April 9, 2011

Learning by doing

Yesterday was a nice day out after a long hard Maine winter of way too much administrative work and classroom teaching for me, and way too little experiential learning for the Sustainable Energy students.

But finally the sun shone, the snow melted, and we had a fun event to attend, the Energy for ME fair at the University of Maine's Hutchinson Center in Belfast.

Deputy Director of Unity College Admissions, Joe "Salty" Saltalamachia also came along to host our table and answer the high schoolers' questions about college and careers in energy.

So what was this big gathering all about?

Energy for ME is a STEM and service-learning program in coastal and island high schools in Maine. It's run by a partnership led by our friends the Island Institute, who are also important members of the coalition of forces behind the Fox Islands Wind Project, the great State o' Maine's first ever community wind project (and extremely successful, generating roughly 12,000 MWh of super-cost effective clean wind energy per year).

Maine islands, and some remote coastal communities, suffer from terribly high energy costs, the result of general remoteness, and in some cases, of being off-grid completely. This makes the cost analysis of renewable energy systems very favorable. Wind and solar power in particular need neither fuel nor transmission lines, and so may save a lot of money for island home-owners.

So the island high-schoolers and their friends from nearby coastal towns were brought in with their teachers for a day of conferencing and hands on demonstrations led by local energy advocates, regional energy firm engineers, energy policy wonks like me, and of course, some of our energy-wonk-in-training Unity students -- by special invitation, no less.

Graduating seniors Jamie Nemecek, of White House Solar Road Trip Fame, and Abie Sullivan, who won the research award at this fall's student conference for her poster on public acceptance of wind farm development, were with me to present their work.

All I had to do was to introduce them, a very great pleasure for me, and hold a little discussion session with the high-schoolers and their teachers.

Also present were the state's Americorps Vista crew, who do work in energy education, and our good Friends from Chewonki summer camp with their many solar demonstrators and educational toys.

Here's Peter Arnold, the main energy education guy at Chewonki, with their solar hot water demonstrator. This had hot water running fairly quickly, after just five minutes of April sunshine. The solar PV panel runs a small circulation pump.

Then, my favorite, a concentrating solar energy demonstrator made from a disused TV satellite dish covered in cheap reflective Mylar.

As you can see from the smoke emanating from the two sticks, this simple parabolic mirror made an excellent demonstrator of the energy available from less than a quarter square meter of the earth's surface. Both sticks were aflame in seconds. The temperature at the focus reached over 600 degrees F, easily enough to flash water into steam and drive a small steam turbine.

I was well-pleased with Jamie and Abie's presentations, which if you think about it, also represented experiential learning. Both will go on, I expect, to have excellent and productive graduate school and working careers solving policy and public relations problems in energy and climate change, and so what could be better than some early practice at making a presentation?

For Abie in particular, this was immediate, since her new advisors at the University of Maine's Policy School will soon decide whether she's to be a Teaching Assistant or a Research Assistant in the fall.

If the former, she'll need her public speaking skills.

Jamie, on the other hand, is looking for a gap-year job (also to be followed by policy school), and so will need to do well in upcoming interviews.

Jamie went first, and described ruefully how the Solar Road Trip students were mishandled by the White House's PR crew and, essentially, sent packing, but expressed their delight when the Obama administration announced only days later that they would solarize the White House.

This is a young woman who will go on in life knowing that youth and idealism can make a difference.

Abie showed how helpful anthropological methods, particularly ethnography, could be in understanding difficulties in public acceptance of energy and climate related policy. This emphasis on qualitative social science was close to the heart of the Island Institute's Suzanne Pude, one of the organizers. The Institute uses a lot of interesting social science, including ethnography, in its work, and so Abie succeeded not only with the students, but also with influential adults in her chosen graduate school field.

While all Joe and I had to do was sit back and watched in admiration.

Among the high-schoolers in the audience, nary a yawn was to be seen. Anyone who's ever taught teenagers knows how rare an event that is. Although neither Jamie nor Abie's presentations were completely pitch-perfect, and there was a minor fluffed line or two, it didn't matter, because they had the audience in the palms of their hands.

And so that, dear readers, is what I called Friday this work week.

Now the weather is better, a pent-up flood of sustainable energy project work will rush out.

Next week will also be busy with hands-on projects. Tuesday, young Justin Cupka and I, with help from the Sustainability Work Study Crew will begin moving our small wind power and solar power demo installations from their old home on the old Eco-Cottage, now slated for demolition (to be replaced with the new passive solar Terra Haus project). The panels and small turbine will go to our agricultural barn where they will have a productive life providing off-grid light and power.

Thursday will be a big day at the Womerlippi Farm, the biggest day of the spring, as the student animal care team comes to help with lambing, giving tetanus shots, trimming hooves, and dung-tagging.

With the late snow this year, there's a lot of outdoor experiential learning to cram into only three weeks of class.

And after that, the famous Unity College community wind power assessment crew gets back to work, with no less than three enormous community wind anemometer towers to raise this year, not to mention the servicing of last year's sites, the data analysis, and the mapping of Maine's wind power resource. The best possible kind of outdoor education for future energy analysts.

And you even get paid.

The hiring call will go out very shortly. Watch this space for a job announcement soon.

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