Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sustainability is the new

Actually, it isn't, because the bubble burst. We haven't even scratched the surface of the amount of work required to get our energy economy sustainable past 2050.

Not soon enough

Irresponsible? Unprofessional? Unscientific? Corrupt?

How about just plain "evil?"

Because how many innocent people will die as a result of the prolongation of this kind of behavior?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

New 80m Maine Wind Map

Click on the images to enlarge.

In March 2011, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory published a new national wind resource assessment for winds at 80 meters above ground level, as well as new state-level 80 m wind maps.

Renewable Energy World
magazine celebrated this achievement with this article here.

This new assessment showed a good deal more wind energy generation capacity available at 80m and 100m, the new "standard" size for large scale wind turbines, including the popular American-made General Electric models.

The new map was drawn up on the basis of important new studies in wind shear by Dennis Elliot of NREL, among others. The national findings are similar to what we have been finding here in Maine when we measure the wind with taller anemometer towers.

Maine wind power development companies have probably known or at least guessed at this information for some time. They generally use two or three 60m or even 80m anemometer towers when scoping out a large-scale wind farm, and they have data from the anemometers on the turbines themselves once constructed, and so would have begun to know about the higher wind speeds and wind shears beginning in 2007/2008, after Mars Hill was constructed.

But wind power development companies don't like to give out anemometer results. If a competitor or a power purchaser knows the capacity factor of a given turbine or wind farm, they can closely estimate the costs of production, and underbid the development company for power.

A development company that develops a site with a high capacity factor, but then can keep that information secret, makes more money per unit, sometimes several more cents/KWh.

The information was not therefore publicly available until NREL released it this spring. I began to guess at this information a couple of years ago when the results of our own 60 meter tower study in Thorndike, Maine revealed unexpectedly high wind shears, and when the Beaver Ridge and Vinalhaven plants were brought online and turned out to create more sound nuisance than expected, and to produce more power than expected. Both of these are suggestive of high wind shear and higher wind speeds at turbine hub height than would be suggested based on the old 50 meter wind map. Discussions with the operators of Beaver Ridge and Vinalhaven supported the hypothesis.

The new NREL wind map is yet further confirmation.

This is good news for Maine's energy independence prospects, and bad news for Maine's anti-wind activist groups.

The important implications for Maine wind power include:

1) There's a lot more wind energy onshore in the state than previously thought, and wind turbines on favorable sites will be more profitable than previously thought.

However, wind power development companies have probably known this for some time.

All these being equal, it means that many sites would be profitable without the federal subsidies currently available. Were the subsidies to be removed, some Maine wind power development would likely still go ahead.

(All this explains the strong continued commercial interest in developing onshore wind power in the state, despite some public resistance. And remember, fossil fuels are also heavily subsidized, and protected from lawsuits and environmental regulation.)

2) Accessing this wind energy will require taller turbines, with associated difficulties in planning, transportation, and protecting viewsheds

3) Maine wind turbines will generally produce more noise than we would have expected a few years ago, because of the new wind shear estimates. Noise modeling for wind farms will have to be adjusted based on the new data

Here's the new resource assessment based on the new wind map:

El Paso

Aimee was just down there for the Association of Biology Laboratory Educators conference, and took some interesting wind power pictures. But this is just a great article about climate change and the drought.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Careers in green tech, and how not to get one: A teaching philosophy

Regular readers will know that I'm occasionally somewhat critical of the higher education system in the US and UK.

This is in part based on my own somewhat irregular life history, and should probably be taken with a pinch of salt. But in other ways, my own experience nicely illuminates the fissures and fault lines and stresses in the system, and when taken together with the social criticism of some of my favorite philosophers and authors, such as Crawford or Pirsig, or the history of innovative Anglo-American technologists from Stephenson and Watt to Gates and Jobs, adds up to something more sustained and valid.

All of what follows is based on the assumption that the climate problem, the national security problem, and the economic problems in Anglo-American society are all energy problems at root, and systematically linked.

If so, what kind of education system do we need to solve these linked problems?

Clearly, not the one we have now.

The basic problem I have with the existing higher education system is that it unnaturally divorces one essential mode of thinking and doing from another essential mode.

Specifically, mechanical and technical expertise is generally considered "blue collar" and "working class," and the province of the technical school or community college system, while scientific and engineering endeavor is "white collar" and "middle" or "upper-middle class".

When in reality the problems of mechanical and engineering and scientific endeavor are seamless and interconnected, a continuum. There is no class differentiation in the world of energy problems. There are just energy ideas that work and energy ideas that don't work.

The majority of our societal problems from pollution to sprawl up through national security and climate change are caused by energy ideas that don't work, implemented by people who don't know any better because they've rarely seen an energy idea that works, or if they have, they haven't been able to recognize it and imagine its widespread use, projected up and down the mechanical/engineering/scientific societal continuum.

This happens because the majority of folks are either entirely excluded from that kind of knowledge by their education and life experience, or because they are trapped in one or the other extreme of the continuum because of education and life experience.

So every year I get supposedly highly-prepared students and adults in my programs, or I encounter them socially or professionally, who don't know one end of a screwdriver from another because of life experience and education, but who can at least think abstractly and scientifically about energy, and imagine the interconnections between these problems.

But they can't implement the solution because they can't imagine doing something even as simple as connecting a solar panel to an inverter to a circuit breaker in a power entrance box.

And every year I get supposedly poorly-prepared students and adults in my programs, or I encounter them socially or professionally, who do know one end of a screwdriver from another because of life experience and education, but who can't yet think abstractly and scientifically about energy. or imagine the interconnections between these problems.

But they can't implement the solution because they can't imagine doing something even as simple as writing a grant proposal or a business plan for a solar power installation.

And then there are the folks with no exposure to higher or technical education at all. These comprise the true underclass in American and British society: no skills, no degree, and most often, the worst and lowest paid and most insecure of jobs.

The "lumpenproletariat" of old. Except this group is getting bigger because our education system is still failing these folks (nothing new there -- it always did fail them), while the lowest grade of jobs, the jobs that this class used to do, are now done by robots or the Chinese.

Meanwhile, we continue to export our energy dollars to other countries, when we could use them to train and pay our own people to solve our pollution, national security and climate problems.

Marx wrote, ad nauseam, about "class consciousness."

As a vernacular British libertarian/progressive, I could give a fig about class consciousness. I've been trying to escape the British class system all my life and have durn near succeeded, mostly by accessing the more meritocratic American regime. As such I'm a great fan of meritocracy.

But I remain critical of this lingering class divide in higher education because it's slowing down the practical solution to our problems with energy.

How does this work? It's an insidious but protracted social mythology about class and employment, and we're all guilty of prolonging it.

Here at Unity College, as at almost every other institution of American and British higher education, students and parents arrive seeking access to the middle class through white collar employment.

A liberal arts and sciences degree in particular supposedly acts as gateway to middle and upper-middle class, white-collar employment, and parents, especially those parents from low income families who have struggled to find economic security, to own their own home, to get proper health insurance for their kids, and so on, parents who desperately wish their offspring to walk through that gateway will do the most irrational things to see that this happens.

In particular, they will often get themselves and their offspring into a good deal of debt. That's not the worst of it, though. The worst of it is the general dumbing-down and grade-inflation that has taken place, as well as the erosion of a genuine spirit of inquiry in the higher education system. The problem of debt just hurts individuals. The dumbing-down of college work hurts our entire society, especially when you consider how difficult the problems in energy and climate that we collectively face are going to be.

Thus the comments I often get from my students that my general education classes about climate and energy are "too hard" or that they "shouldn't" require any math.

Pirsig has a wonderful passage (beginning half-way down page 190 in the Google Books edition) in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he uses the analogy of a mule, pulling the "cart of civilization," to describe this erosion evocatively and effectively.

I read this passage at a very young age, but it meant the most to me when I quit my former life as an airplane technician in the then-class ridden British Royal Air Force, to become instead an American academic.

What is the solution?

To begin, we should understand that it is only the truly skill-less and thought-less young people in our society that are categorically excluded from the middle classes. And you can be without skills and thoughts almost as easily with a collage education as without one, if you don't actually take proper advantage of that educational opportunity.

So the first thing we need to do is to make college hard enough to be useful to society, helping those students who are prepared to work to the proper college level, and flunking those who don't.

The second thing we need to do is to toss this old dichotomy between white-collar/middle-class work and blue-collar/lower-class work. There are plenty of avenues to a middle class income level and true economic security that you can access by working with both your hands and your brain. Nearly anything that is interesting and worth doing requires both. In my business of energy efficiency and renewable energy such avenues are more the rule than the exception. I can't tell you how many knuckle-headed solar and wind and energy efficiency installation mistakes I've seen made by contractors who couldn't think, or how many dim-witted and cack-handed energy programs I've seen designed by sustainability officers who didn't know one end of a screwdriver from another.

We should seek to implement a true meritocracy in education whereby the divide between mechanical and engineering/scientific endeavor, and the class differences between white and blue collar employment, are systematically broken down. Society's appreciation of mechanical and technical endeavor should begin to approximate the class-free nature of that endeavor itself, particularly in energy.

There is no class differentiation in the world of energy problems. There are just energy ideas that work and energy ideas that don't work. We should appreciate all those who offer solutions, whether they have degrees or not, whether white or blue collar. In particular we should encourage the intelligent linking of the two. Stephenson and Watt, Jobs and Gates: none of these leaders finished a degree.

But they changed our world and paved the way for the preeminence of our society.

How might we encourage this new synthesis?

I don't know about the rest of the higher education system, but for me this might mean requiring both mechanical and physical labor from students and scientific and engineering thought, together, linked, seamless, in as many of my classes and as much of my teaching as I can.

What good will this do society?

Our Unity College graduates will know one end of a screwdriver from another and one end of a grant proposal or business plan from another.

They'll be able to write a grant proposal or business plan for the solar installation, and then they'll be able to construct it and connect it and make it work. Enough such people and our current problems in climate change, national security, and economics will be solved.

It really is that simple.

I don't believe for a moment that other problems wouldn't arise.

But one life, and one lifes-work, at a time.

Not so passive

Local CBS station WABI 5 did a nice "bright" on our new passive solar residence. Director of the Center for Global Change and Sustainability, Doug Fox, did the interview and came off really well.

With luck, this one might get picked up by the rest of CBS.

The more ordinary people realize that we can do without oil, and the faster they realize this, the better.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The quiet ones

I was at the Association for Environmental Studies and Science Annual Meeting at the University of Vermont, and took a slight deviation from the schedule to meet with Wellie Cobden and Phil Pouech of NRG Systems Inc, just down the road from UVT in Hinesburg, VT.

Wellie and Phil and I together go back about five-six years. They've been great friends and helpers of our community wind assessment program and our Sustainable Energy degree.

Phil is a Unity alum ('81 or thereabouts), and was instrumental in the gift of our first anemometer systems way back in 2006.

They are both employees of NRG Systems on the technical side. Phil is the Director of Manufacturing, while Wellie is the Field Manager and tech rep for tower erection, and most recently has been the lead guy on the new LIDAR wind measurement systems. Both are the kind of quietly capable individuals I like best to work with.

If we had a few thousand more Phils and Wellies in this world, I wouldn't be so worried about climate change.

I took with me Aaron Witham, also a Unity alum and former Sustainability Coordinator, now a Gund Institute Fellow at UVT studying transportation and climate issues, and Anna DeMeo, who teaches physics and engineering applied to renewable energy at College of the Atlantic.

We had a very pleasant afternoon at the factory. We were able to view and assess their newer products, including their new LIDAR system as well as the AllEarth Renewables AllSun solar trackers.

This was the specific tracker I had in mind when I made my recommendation, recently renewed on Andy Revkin's blog, that we place visible, inspiring solar PV not on the White House roof, but on US-designed and US-made trackers placed around the Elipse and Mall.

I wasn't going to plug the AllEarth model directly in the NYT, since that might have reduced the believability of the recommendation, Mick advertising for his buddies' equipment, but I'm more than happy to make the specification here on my own blog.

It was fun to stand underneath the unit and watch it gear around hunting for maximum sunshine on a cloudy day. It doesn't take a lot of energy to move, and the panels will capture an awful lot more energy as a result.

We also got to see an Earth Turbine 2500 from afar. The last time I saw an EarthTurbine it was a prototype on the bench.

Since all of us were energy techies or engineers, this was a bit like a picnic or family outing for renewables geeks and definitely the best fun I've had in a long while. I didn't have my camera or cell phone with me so was unable to take pictures, but Phil has some I took with his smart phone, and will send them to me, so I will post them later.

The one picture I was able to take with my own phone is above: This is a Northern Power company Northwind 100 turbine located at Dynapower Inc, on the Hinesburg Road south of Burlington, VT.

This is the turbine that will soon be installed at Camden Hills Regional High School here in Maine. I was excited to see it because so far in Maine the large scale turbines that have been used have all been fairly noisy models. This is a problem because it's been the main incentive behind all the restrictive ordinances that have been passed by many Maine towns now, many of which use long setbacks as regulatory tools for noise management.

I've said fairly consistently for several years now that if you wish to regulate noise, regulate noise using a noise performance standard, not a setback. Setbacks are good for other turbine-related nuisances, but not noise. Setbacks, when used to regulate noise, prohibit useful and quiet makes and models of turbines, and give the wrong incentive to developers, actually encouraging them to use noisier models.

The quiet Northwind 100 would effectively be illegal in many Maine towns because it would be essentially impossible for a landowner or developer to place one on a site in say Jackson, Dixmont, or many other towns with restrictive ordinances, and still meet the one and two-mile setbacks that have been required, supposedly to protect neighbors against noise.

Yet if the setback can be met, why would a developer wish to pay a little extra for a quieter turbine? Direct drive turbines like the Northwind are available in many rated output categories, even up to 3 and 4 MW models like the egg-shaped Enercons.

Direct drive dramatically reduces noise output.

Enercons aren't made in the US, however, while Northwinds are.

For these reasons, I'm particularly eager to have a Northwind in Maine.

And so we stood underneath the thing yesterday, in a wind speed of 10-15 mph, with the blades spinning at about 15 rpm, and all we could here was a slight hiss at about 45 dBA.

I doubt you can hear this turbine at all after 200 meters.

There was also no AM noise that I could detect, which surprised me because the blades are nothing particularly special.

The cars on the nearby Hinesburg Road were definitely much noisier than the turbine.

One fine day we'll have to repeal or replace a lot of these ordinances. The price of heating oil and gas will go up, while electric cars will come down, and Mainers will want to be able to keep electrical power prices down in order to use electricity to heat homes and charge cars. I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't even a kind of backlash, in which Mainers reduce regulation more than I would like or recommend, as the political pendulum swings the other way.

When this happens there will be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth from Maine's anti-wind activists.

But that's what happens when you take such an extreme position.

You're asking for the other extreme to respond in kind, and if they ever get the chance, they will, showing no mercy.

Neither extreme seems very good to me.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Another letter to Revkin's blog

I need to stop writing responses to Andy's questions. The questions he asks are very interesting to me, but some of the other respondents are nuts.

But here's my latest missive, a response to this post here on the Obama pledge to "Put Solar on It" (the White House):

[Dear Andy:]

At the risk of seeming hypocritical (since the students who drove our original "Jimmy Carter" solar panel to the White House were from my institution), at the time of the solar road trip I suggested both to Bill McKibben and to the blogosphere that for various technical and architectural reasons the White House itself wasn't necessarily the best site for a solar array.

Instead, US-produced solar "trackers" might be mounted on various sunny sites around the Mall or the Elipse, or US-made utility-scale panels using US-proprietary thin film technology might be mounted on the roofs of the several very large government buildings in that area that have flat roofs, or some combination thereof.

I still stand by that compromise suggestion. I think it makes more technological and commercial sense.

But McKibben's goals, and the Administration's goals in agreeing to the installation, might not be the same ones I have in mind.

Or maybe they are and they just don't know enough about the technology.

If the symbolic and educational nature of this demonstration is the most important idea, trackers make sense and are architecturally interesting, and would be more visible in a public park at ground level than out-of-sight on the roof of a historical building. If producing power is the most important notion here, then out-of-sight utility scale panels make more sense, and are already cost-effective (ie, profitable) in slightly sunnier regions than DC. Since the thin-film technology is mostly US-owned, and since it's the best bet for, and already producing commercial scale, cost-effective solar electricity, this would be less of an attempt, or at least more patriotically defensible an attempt, to force a market "winner" than the original White House solar array.

Best compromise: have a few token trackers down on the Elipse where folk can see and appreciate them, but also put a decently-sized solar power station on the various roofs to actually make a sensible amount of power.

The problem with the original Carter panels is about the government "picking winners." They took about eighty pounds of copper, glass, steel, and aluminum to do what we do today with about ten (using evacuated tube solar thermal technology). They were not a market winner. As President Carter said might happen at the time of the dedication, they are now museum pieces. But those of us that were inspired by his vision went on to design better systems and amass new knowledge about renewable energy.

They were, therefore, an important "road not taken," at least by the mainstream the the president was attempting to reach, and important symbolically and educationally. It bothers me to think of all the money spent in the meantime to enrich petrostate dictators and to protect the flow of oil. If we'd taken President Carter's advice and stayed on that road and solved the technological problems sooner rather than later, we'd all be a lot better off by now.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The UK government has been forced to release a 2009 analysis of "peak oil" and its implications.

I recommend it. You'll need PowerPoint.

Unfortunately, The Guardian's article on the release is considerably less reasoned than the report itself.

For the record, I've consistently said that 1) oil prices are more important than any resource availability in this analysis, and that 2) climate change is the real energy problem, since although we may be able to find considerable addition all reserves particularly of unconventional hydrocarbons like tar sands or natural gas, we may not wish to actually use them, and add to what are already considerable problems with extreme weather.

And I just said it again, didn't I?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Are you starting college this fall?

OK. Are you "college-ready?"

The executive summary of this article above: Only 37% of New York high schoolers were.

Whereas, statistically, more than 60% and even 70% will attempt college.

It's hard to tell any All-American kid that college is not for them, that they are not going to succeed in college work and either shouldn't start or should hone their skills in community college, when traditional first-year, first time college is often the earliest of life's battles with the system of rewards and employment we have unwittingly created in society.

But after years of college teaching, I wish more folks would follow Matthew Crawford's advice in Shop Class and Soulcraft.

Not only is it probably not going to make a poorly prepared student happy in life, nor make society better-run or a better place to live in, but if a family pressurizes a non-academic kid into college, it's also then really expensive to take a PhD-qualified college teacher, who is capable of teaching advanced science and math, or who can help a student learn to write the best English prose for pleasure or business, and use that very highly qualified person to fix reading, writing, and figuring skills at the most basic level.

Your tax dollars at work, folks. Not to mention enough debt to buy a house.

It makes no sense. If the idea is to set a young person up in life, but if that youth is not interested in books or ideas, then buy them a house.

Or a good set of tools.

Yet it happens every year.

Tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt ensue for the student and the parents, with little or no prospect of a job at the end, because employers are wise at this point to academic grade inflation and can figure out from transcripts, references and interviews who has actually mastered the material of a college education.

The days when all The Bachelor Justin Hoffman needed was a sport coat and a diploma to be taken seriously as a candidate for leadership in society are well and truly over.

I also wish students and parents would remember that a BS degree is a Bachelor of Science degree, and that if the student is not reading and comprehending ordinary science literature, primary papers, secondary books and tertiary textbooks, with full-on math and statistics, by the end of their third year of college, then they are not actually making the grade as a Bachelor of Science, nor, therefore are they spending their money wisely.

They also should be able to structure a basic research or applied science problem, and at least the introductory inquiry into that problem, with little help from their professors.

One high point of teaching at Unity College is the larger and larger number of non-traditional students and transfer students we are getting each year. The success rate for these students is much greater, and the friction required to make them face up to college-level material is much less. Much larger numbers succeed.

This is simply because most transfer students, by definition students that have already attempted some college somewhere else, by this key point in their lives, actually want to learn, and are not being forced by their parents or "the system" to be there.

Amen for that.

Now we're on the same page, the student and I.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Showdown or slowdown?

Photo: Unity wind crew working on the Fox Islands Wind/NREL sound study last year.

I was at the NEWEEP wind siting conference Tuesday, taking a break from anemometer work, and had the chance to ask Maine Wind Industry Initiative boss Paul Williamson when the inevitable showdown with Governor LePage would occur.

His response was diplomatic, and he neatly avoided any kind of hot-button quote.

I wasn't trying to trap the guy. I've been fascinated by our Governor's interesting approach to complex energy problems in general, and honestly wondered when the wind industry would get around to this "come to mother" discussion with the Governor.

Background: Our governor came into office with a good deal of support from the Tea Party, which itself is supported directly by the oil industry, particularly the billionaires Koch.

However, Maine has no oil.

Maine does have wind, quite a bit of it, and a fairly significant effort is underway to tap this excellent resource. Wind power in general is relatively popular in the state, and regularly polls at eighty percent or more, according to NRCM. Wind power is delivering a very good deal of internal investment, all subject to property taxes, which is helping out with the road and schools budgets in dozens of Maine towns. Maine wind power can be produced cheaply, at prices as low as 5 ¢/KWH, and it can be integrated into the grid supply quite well. As a result, we gain energy independence and reduce greenhouse gas and acid rain and other pollution. There have been noise problems and siting problems that deserve regulation, and a vocal minority campaigns against it, but in general the development of Maine's wind resource, including offshore wind, is going ahead.

What this means is, there are hundreds of wind power-related jobs in Maine already, billions of dollars of investment, and millions of dollars of tax income to towns. No reasonable politician of any stripe is going to successfully confront that kind of economic and political power head on. And if you were to try any head-on attack, you'd be even more unreasonable not to expect a major backlash, just as soon as your opponents could get themselves organized.

So some kind of showdown was inevitable. I was surprised it didn't come earlier. I wanted to know why it hadn't happened already, so I asked my question. To be honest, I was expecting to hear, or hear it intimated, that discussions had occurred behind closed doors and an live-and-let-live accommodation had been worked out. Although the Governor came into office with his six-guns blazing against wind power, he recently appointed a pragmatist, Winslow Republican Kenneth C. Fletcher, as Director of the Governor's Office of Energy Independence, the state's "Energy Czar."

I didn't expect Paul to say so outright but I expected to able to read between the lines that some accommodation had been achieved.

Instead of hinting at some quiet deal, he dodged. I went away wondering what was going on. If, after all these months in office, the Maine wind industry had not yet met with the Governor or his staff, well, that was surprising to me.

I was even more surprised then, only a few hours after asking my question of Mr. Williamson, and hearing him so neatly dodge it, to see his name plastered all over my morning newspaper and reported on the radio and TV.

I guess I now know what was going on.

I still don't believe the Governor has deliberately courted controversy here. It's just the learning curve. In particular, it took an extraordinarily long time to fill the Energy Czar position, nearly five months. I made a few recommendations and sent a couple of names up to the Governor's staff myself, because I was keen to get someone pragmatic in place. I would expect that Mr. Fletcher will soon make himself busy around the state promoting Maine energy of all kinds.

Which is good, because we are finding out more and more about this resource every week and month that goes by. Between myself and Paul Villeneuve of the University of Maine, the two public-domain anemometrists in the state, we now have data, or will soon get data, from around twenty anemometer sites. We're able to predict the power production and cost-effectiveness of a turbine on any onshore site in Maine with fair accuracy, and we can also explain quite a bit more about turbine noise than previously was possible.

If Mainers want cheap, sustainable, locally-produced energy, we can produce it. Not without some noise and visual impacts, but with a whole lot less impacts than mountaintop removal coal mining, or deep sea oil drilling. We can use it for electricity, to be sure, but we can also heat our homes with it, and use it to charge electric vehicles.

And many more wind power dollars remain in state than do oil dollars. In fact, if Mr. Willamson has his druthers, Maine would become a hub of wind power manufacturing.

As a technologist and engineer, I'm a great fan of manufacturing jobs.

All this is assuming we can get together with our Governor and talk about it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Slow food for thought

I'm just coming out of one of those occasional mad-moments that modern life creates regularly. The wind crew and I were busy on Monday with a 50 meter anemometer tower in Turner, Maine, where we'll get a very good test of my wind shear hypothesis.

But that was a long, hot, hard days work, and I didn't get home until 6.30pm.

Then, at 3am, I left to drive down to Marlboro for the NEWEEP wind conference. I spend six hours conferencing, but left early so I could be sure of staying awake while driving back. I pulled into my own driveway at around 7pm, pretty shattered.

Today I plan to move very much more steadily and deliberately. It will be back to the Turner site for me, to make sure my tower is steady and safe ahead of Thursday's predicted storms.

I checked and double-checked on Monday, but I won't sleep well until it's triple checked, with my eyes fresh after being away for a short while.

Revkin's blog this morning
offered an opportunity to comment on why I think this fast-pace of modern life is killing is all, slowly, in more ways than we might think.

Like not having time to stop and think about climate change, for instance.

Harris Tweed and regional sustainable development

This video clip about the Harris Tweed industry from the Guardian was a pleasant reminder of the research I did for my MS degree in the early 1990s.

Nothing quite like funding and a mandate for two months of field research (into regional sustainable development ideas and praxis) in the Scottish Highlands.

I'd like a chance to do that again one day.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

It's official: Blocks do work

I've been running a campaign against the evil dark heart of the American higher education system now for several years.

I want to kill the fifty minute class. Dead.

The fifty minute class wastes billions of dollars of tuition money and college professor salaries each year. It must die.

Or at least, and more rationally, it should only get used for those subjects where it actually works, which in my humble yet experienced opinion are very few.

The reason is, if you really want to learn something important and useful in this life, like how to balance a basic energy equation, how to write a decent, passable sentence in English, how to use a computer spreadsheet, how to diagnose a faulty system using trail-and-error logic, or how to outline a piece of technical writing, you simply need to concentrate.

Students do not have time to begin to concentrate in fifty minute college classes. Ergo, they are wasting their money, as well as my time as a college professor, and the overhead costs required to keep the classroom, and classroom building, and every other facet of the college economy, running.

But our college system, barring a few exceptions here and there, uses the fifty minute class as the basic building block of the schedule.

This awesome power to decide how long students must concentrate on the topics they are paying to learn is wielded not by any loathsome Committee of Registrars and Faculty Against Higher Learning, but is in fact not wielded at all, not by anyone.

The fifty minute schedule happens purely by default. Just because, for no good reason whatsoever. And yet it's imposed with an mailed fist.

No-one thinks about it at all. It's taken for granted. But if College Comp and Algebra must be taught in fifty minutes, then most everything else must be too, to make the system work at all. The minute you go build a schedule with all those little fifty minute and one-hour fifteen minute (Tuesday-Thursday) rectangles, that's it. Suggestive logic takes over, and of course, all those rectangles have to be filled.

Except the system isn't working.

Johnny still can't read. Or write, or think critically.

And he certainly can't even begin to construct a decent quantitative analysis.

That academics all across the country continue to take fifty minute classes for granted is the largest single failure of critical thinking in American academia.

All these academics, all these students, all these administrators that think that they can't possibly do anything else!

I wouldn't be so mad about this if I hadn't spent years in a different system, where community learning and block scheduling and experiential engagement were the norm. Back in the day I was a graduate student assistant and part-time program staffer in the University of Montana's famous Wilderness and Civilization program, and I was in fact in charge of all the field trips and all the weekend retreats and much of the block scheduling we did in that program. Later, I helped run a community learning program at the University of Maryland. Even earlier, I spent several years as a troubled youth counselor, learning all about why Johnny really couldn't read.

In each case, the remedy was to put Johnny in the company of purposeful adults for long enough to get him to leave his distractions behind and get him concentrating on doing something useful, and then while doing something useful, provide the intellectual or theoretical background to whatever useful thing we were doing. Eventually, classroom instruction begins to have meaning, and eventually it begins to work.

It takes hours, but it works when nothing else does.

Students did what they were supposed to do. They learned. Go figure.

You can't put today's 18 year-old in a fifty minute classroom and expect them to learn.

And I've never forgotten the lesson and the experience has made me a thorough pain in the derierre as far as my faculty and administrative colleagues are concerned. There are a couple other third rails I regularly touch too. For instance, I actually want to teach in summer. It's the best time of year for practical projects and for building green energy demonstrators. Of course I want to teach in summer. But this is purely horrifying to many colleagues. I'm regularly warned off.

So this article here gave me heart.

One day, the monster will die.