Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Deforestation and Climate Change

Last night I had dinner with some musician friends from High School (thanks Facebook for making such a meeting possible!). And there were only two of us who had left the fine arts world for science. My friend Abbie (who used to play Oboe in the Vermont Youth Orchestra) has been working on the international politics of global climate change. Her most recent Masters Degree (she now has two) in Environmental Studies led her to a thesis regarding the importance of including deforestation policy in climate change talks. According to her 1/5th of the world's Green House Gas emissions come from deforestation, slash & burn, in the rainforest. And that's the cheapest thing to fix. Instead of building wind turbines, or switching to biodiesel, we could just not destroy forest land for agricultural use.

According to Abbie, slash & burn in the Amazon was, once upon a time, a sustainable technique used by natives for agriculture. A small population would clear an area of forest, but the land was so poor that it could only support them for a handful of years, after which they'd pick up camp, move to another location and do the same thing until, after about a 30 year period they would end up at the original plot.

Abbie's thought is that a high carbon-emitting country could pay a highly forested-country to not cut down their forest land as a way to offset or sequester their carbon.

This plan was opposed by Abbie's friend who works first-hand with Brazilian farmers saying that in such a case, one country basically pays the government of another country and the farmers who need jobs are left with nothing.

Here's as fundamental question: how can we both preserve forest land and create jobs for native peoples?

When a french-horn playing friend asked, "so what's an acre of forest worth?" Abbie replied that it depends on the type of forest and how much carbon is sequestered there. For some forest areas that have been burned it may take on the order of 50 years to gain back the carbon lost to decay or burning. However, the peat forests in Indonesia which are incredibly carbon dense, she said once those have been filled in for agriculture, the space will *never* recapture all the carbon it once held. And ironically, the agriculture in Indonesia is largely for Palm Oil, which is used in many products, but also biodeisel. Apparently the EU just put out a mandate that some percentage of all transportation fuel must be biodeisel. So this mandate is creating a market for a horribly carbon-unfriend practice. Bleh! So complicated!

All this stuff sounds fairly depressing and too big to handle, but I'd like to propose that it's not too big. It's all just policy. Let's change the mindset. I think, globally our morals are shifting, so what should they be? Look at whole systems, give back what you take, businesses need morals too, what do people need?, progress at what cost? hmmm I feel another post coming on... :)

On another note entirely:
Last night I had a dream that my students were presenting their original calculations regarding energy and climate change at a church and WCAX was there and wanted to know if we wanted to use their microphones or if we should use our own. I came up to give an introduction to the presentations when I woke up, and as I did the phrase throbbing in my head was:

"The Rich want to Drive. The Poor want to Eat."

Friday, December 12, 2008

Remembering Romaine Tenney: "The Man Who Would Not Be Moved"

I heard this story from my mom last night, which I felt was so compelling that we did a little more research and found an article regarding the events in an old newsletter. Here's my version.

In Ascutney Vermont back in the 60's there lived an old man who had a small farm with a gorgeous 19th century gingerbread farm house and a barn across the road. Romaine Tenney, who had been born in the house was the only one of nine siblings still living there, working the farm, which had 40 cows. He was quoted as saying "I was born in this house and I'll die in this house."

Mr. Tenney milked his cows by hand even in 1964. After a little research I found an article in a newsletter from the Weathersfield Historical Society by Edith F. Hunter which states, "He did not approve of electricity, daylight savings time, or gasoline powered vehicles. He heated his house with wood stoves, lighted with kerosine lamps, and did his farming with horses." Mom says she remembers him because he used to rent pasture land from her parents' farm, and he would drive his cows up the road to Weathersfield and their farm, always walking along behind the cows.

"In the early 1960's I-91 was being constructed" the article says. "Many things stood in its way - rocky hills that had to be dynamited, wetlands that had to be filled in, houses and barns that had to be moved or destroyed. One of those houses... was the farm of Romaine Tenney in Ascutney." Tenney resisted all offers from I-91 reps. They offered him almost ten times what the property was worth according to town records, and he wouldn't budge. They offered to move the house, but that was eventually deemed unfeasible.

As I-91 made its progress closer to Tenney's property neighbors offered to help him move, the local school offered to donate large boxes so he could move his belongings, to which Tenney replied, "Perhaps I can use them, or at least they will burn well."

As my mom was telling me this story, I thought it was going to end, "and that's why there's a funny little bend in I-91", but no, that's not how the story ends.

Again from the article: "On Friday, Sept. 11, [1964] the county sheriff came with a court order to remove Romaine Tenny's possessions, and brought along four helpers and two trucks to get the job done." Apparently these movers just started working, moving stuff around all day.

Later that night, after another man named Fitch had dropped off his children's baby sitter he drove by the house and noticed the interior was "all aglow", and there was a strange light inside the barn. He raced to the fire department, but when they arrived they could not break down the door because it had been "spiked" shut. Even if they could have gone in it would have been unsafe as the building was structurally unsound at that point as the fire consumed the house.

Tenney's dogs and cows had been set loose outside the barn, which also burned to the ground.
The next morning, inside the house they found what they believed to be human remains in a bedroom with a .32 caliber rifle, revolver, and exploded shells, although it was unclear if the shells exploded from the fire and the barrels of both the revolver and rifle had been melted shut.

When Mom drives down 91 she knows exactly where the house was and remembers Mr. Tenney as she drives inches above where his house once stood.

Emminent domain is maybe one of the scariest laws I can think of - it symbolizes all that I don't love about forms of government with high level of intervention such as socialism and communism. This also means that despite the fact that I wish certain properties in Montpelier would be managed differently, I respect the fact that it's not my decision and the state, the "will of the people", should not force a change.

True as this story is, it serves as a fable or archetypal myth conveying sentiments which I believe many Vermonters identify with. The reclusive old ludite harrassed by the government in a fit of depression gives in and destroys something beautiful in a final catastrophic statement about progress. Where are we going? Is it somewhere good? Who decides what is good and what is meant by "progress"?

These are difficult questions that I believe many Vermonters are currently struggling with. I hear it in conversations at church, at school, and with students. When students gave me a positive reaction to the possibility of an electro-magnetic pulse bomb going off over America, that certainly gave me pause to question our current state of technology.

The story also raises questions about states rights vs. the rights of individuals. Who's will is more important: those of property owners, or the collective majority's will, the rich foreigner's will or the poor native's will. I believe it's part of the state's job to look out for the rights of its poor constituency.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Sustainability Rally and VECAN Conference

The last few days have been just crammed with ... wow - great, bad, wonderful, horrible stuff.

Let's start with the highlights:
Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network (VECAN) conference at Vermont Technical College in Randolph. That was just awesome. I went to regional policy session first: not that interesting, but good to know, and meanwhile I found myself brainstorming about other things. Then I dialogued with a VTC prof with whom I'd been meaning to connect, Joan Hall-Richmond. We're both interested in engaging students in the weatherization process. She might also be interested in the Summer of Solutions program (which I'm not sure if I'll do yet).

Then I got to chat with Ken Jones, which was great (as usual), then a final session led by the "ethical consciousness director" for Seventh Generation, Gregor Barnum. There were other people presenting, but he was mainly the show. And he was really good - gosh, he was funny, but I enjoyed his presentation on the Low Carbon Diet workbook very much. I've already proposed doing it with my environmental Bible study group at St. Andrew's.

And finally instead of hearing another speaker I connected with Kimberly Hagen of VEEP (Vermont Energy Education Program?) so she's planning to come to my class to do some energy demonstrations, which I'm completely stoked about.

After the conference I went to a friends house for a potluck followed by a contra dance in Montpelier. And wow. I had never been to the one in Montpelier before, but it was packed with spectrum of ages: people my age, high school-aged folks, middle aged, and more gray-haired folk. It was also one of the few events that I've been to at which there were more men than women. *gasp!* Anyway, I had a ball - thanks for entertaining this paragraph of non-physics related material.

On Friday of the weekend I went to a rally with a bunch of (mostly) college kids, followed by hanging out with legislators and getting a feel for the up coming session and students were able to discuss issues they cared about. It was great.

So now... instead of relating the low points of the weekend, how about we'll frame it as things I've learned:

From the rally:
If I'm not in charge, I should not pick up other people's garbage.
Rely most heavily on adults rather than students to get things done.
I just need to be a confident leader and people will follow.
It's important to keep an open hand and let things evolve as they will evolve. I can't control outcomes.
Having friends around can help me breathe in the midst of chaos.

From the press:
Be careful about what you say to reporters.
Don't involve the media unless you really believe in what's happening.

From the aftermath of the article:
It's best to sweep up miscommunications right away so that feelings are not hurt.

If you'd like to read the article it's here (it had some less than bright implications about our relationship with the cafeteria).

Altogether I'd say it was a successful weekend even with all the madness with the media. We'll just chalk that up to my own education.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Is Your Life Sustainable? Reflections on busy-ness

This evening I met with one of the pastors of St. Andrew's over tea at Uncommon Ground in Burlington, and I told him all about the latest excitments in my life:

Recent trip to Chicago for a Knowles Science Teaching fellows meeting; I just got interviewed by a woman from the Bridge for an upcoming article about Capitol Area Neighborhoods; VSHI is hosting a rally for sustainability this Friday and KSTF's advertising company caught wind of it and so they've managed to interest the Times Argus sometime before the rally; and apparently Vermont Magazine is interested in an interview in the near future.

Meanwhile I'm working on weatherizing the homes of St. Andrew's goers, visioning where St. Andrew's should go next, and just today I met up with a guy from the Roots school in Calais which teaches primitive and survival skills. I'd really like to have him come to my classroom to teach students how to make fire, in conjunction with our unit on force and friction.

In the course of conversation he said, "Do you think your life is sustainable?"

I said immediately, "no", but I was really just referencing the gasoline in my car and the propane heating my house. Of course, that's not what he meant, and so it gave me pause to wonder if I could continually bite off more than I could chew indefinitely. Maybe. I've been doing it for so long that I don't know what else I would do, how else I would live.

Maybe if I ever decide to date someone, then maybe I'll slow down. What's more important relationships or changing the world?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Montpelier: Transition Town Meeting

I just returned from the Montpelier Transition Town Meeting where Transition Town Handbook author Naresh Giangrande from Totnes, UK spoke about how to transition to a post peak-oil community. It was very much about relocalization, addressing the community as a whole. A couple interesting points he brought up:

1) He uses human happiness metrics as an indicator of success (along with lbs of CO2 emissions averted).
2) For those who don’t have access to land to grow their own food, he and his team are matching up people with land and would like it to be worked with people who don’t have land and are willing to grow things. Pretty cool solution.
3) He noted that “common or shared things” will become more important, like garden spaces, tools, etc.

For my readers not in Vermont, oh gosh how I wish you could’ve seen the folks who attended. They were the best of Vermonters: The Cynic from Barre, the mustache-wearing soft spoken fellow who wore a black hat and coat and carried a long walking stick with colored string wrapped around the end of it, the bright-eyed wrinkly old farmers with no teeth left to articulate their questions, the alert high school activist, the 20-something bearded fleece wearer who reeked of pot when he came in, and my friend Nicko the heirloom tree farmer. There were a lot of suspenders, flannel, and fleece. I don’t know why I find it important to note what everyone was wearing, except for that perhaps it does give us a sense of identity and shared culture – which I hear will be important in the post-carbon society.

I do have one bone to pick with Mr. Giangrande, which is specifically about what a transition town is. He said it was a community that used “much less” energy and “much fewer” resources than what we do now. I disagree. I’m shooting for sustainability.

At least two friends have asked me in the last month “What is sustainability? Everybody talks about it, but I’m not sure I know what it means”. Fair enough, I think it’s overused, but here’s what I mean:

In order for a process to be sustainable it may only take resources at a rate that they may be replenished, and if the resource is non-renewable, then it shouldn’t be taken. This seems rather negative, let’s spin it more positively: A sustainable community uses resources at a rate that can be sustained indefinitely because they are harvested less than or equal to the rate at which they are replenished. Hm. Does that make sense? That seemed to take more words than I had hoped.

I would like to see some metric of success developed around that.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

National Board Certification: A Humble Post

Soooooo... some of you may know that last spring I applied for National Board Certification and in case you didn't guess from the title of the post, I didn't get it. Sad face.

It was definitely tough news since I received it in the beginning hours of a day-long training session with my other Knowles Science Teaching fellows, and Casey (a fabulous physics teacher, and Knowles fellow) from California did get it.

No, I didn't cry - I wanted to at times, but mainly I had to fairly quickly digest the details of my failure, accept it, let it go, and move on. Of course everyone was sad to hear it and the air in the room was understandably tense until the next break when I got to explain to folks the details of my failure.

I had a really strong portfolio (representing about 90% of the work), but my test score was abysmal. I knew coming out of that test that I had bombed it, and I knew ahead of time that if I didn't get it it would be because of the test. So at least I anticipated that piece correctly.

Here's the good news, my portfolio scores will be kept for 2 years during which time I have the opportunity to re-do any pieces I wish to redo for the required score of 275, which I only missed by 6 points. So here's what I'll do: I'll schedule another testing, study my butt off, and I probably couldn't help but do well a second time around.

Aaaaaand back to the bad news. Now I've got to break it to people at school, family, colleagues, students that I didn't get it. :P Not really looking forward to that. However, here's a story to go with this news:

It's like my own grading policy is being applied to me. I let my students redo any piece of work within a certain time limit, and now, I have that same opportunity as well. Learning will occur and I'll get better and I'll have a second chance to show it. There's something satisfying about the reflexive or pleasantly ironic nature of that thought. And I think my students will appreciate it as well.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What if VSHI went National?

When we met with Peter Welch we asked him if we could go National with this program, if we could come to Washington DC to do some lobbying. And he jokingly said, "No", and added that we didn't need his permission to lobby in Washington. The only thing is, we don't know how to lobby in Washington. :(

I was talking with Bart my bus buddy today about this and he recommended getting someone with that kind of experience on the board of VSHI since we are, finally, a non-profit. Hm.

I guess we have a board. Sort of. It's Tom, the students, and myself. But we don't have bi-laws or regular monthly meetings. Anyway, talking with Bart made it seem possible to lobby in Washington, which brings up the question, what specific things are we looking for?

1) $100,000,000 for research grants regarding sustainable heating and cooling systems available to university students to do research.

2) 1% of each state's current LIHEAP funding to go towards helping low income families transition to sustainable heating/cooling systems.

This is what we've got so far - there are a few more details, but maybe they'll change. Now we just need to figure out how to get this in a bill or ... something. (?)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Peter Welch, David Sharpe converge on a LIHEAP-VSHI recipient home

This past Thursday the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative met with Vermont Congressman Peter Welch, and Vermont State senator from Addison County David Sharpe.

They and VSHI members from UVM, Mt. Abe, and Montpelier gathered at the home of a LIHEAP recipient whom we had given a stove. Peter Welch seemed enthusiastic about our work, and David Sharpe hopes to write some legislation to change the way LIHEAP is funded. He encouraged us to move now rather than wait for the next legislative session to begin.

We made the Addison Independent paper - pretty cool, but again I am eager for action rather than talk.

I was just on a conference call with Tim DenHerder-Thomas from MacAllister University along with Tom and Jessie-Ruth. The three of us may play host to Tim's new program called Summer of Solutions, an opportunity for high school and college students to spend their summer working on projects like the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative. That would be great. Last summer VSHI was basically my second job, and this might actually allow me to delegate some responsibility and make me freer. Perhaps that's a pipe dream, but I'm not committed yet, so I have some time to mull over it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Physics War 2008: How it all went down

Oh man - this was by far the best Physics War yet. It was so exciting.

So here's the story:

Within the first 5 minutes Russia had taken over Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran; India had taken over China; and France took over Libya and Iraq. America (far away from everyone) just lobbed tennis balls without any success. The UK pretty much was just hanging out occassionally launching at Russia.

Then Russia took out China, which gave them control of almost all the launchers from the Asian continent. France held Iraq and Libya, but that's it. So it was Russia vs. France with UK's help. Libya got the winning hit against Russia, thus delivering them to France. So it was down to France, the UK, and the US.

France and the UK had a running pact since they were right next to each other so the UK and France (with everyone else's launcher) were all launching at the US. Only this is... the UK wasn't reeeally launching at them, because secretly they had made a pact with US. So they were like intentionally missing, but shooting enough to keep up appearances.

So then during a ceasefire, the UK went to the US and said, "we have 7 more shots left, and France only has 3, so we'll probably take over France and then it'll just be us two. So how about when that happens at that point we put down our arms and agree to split the m&m's 50/50?" The US wanted like 60/40, but the UK said, "We can just walk away; we don't need to make this deal." So the US said, "Fine. 50/50".

So then the UK turns on France and France is like "WHAT? I thought we had a pact!?" And so France and the whole rest of the world starts launching at the UK. And the UK gets his 4 more times and France gets hit 2 more times. And then out of no where, the US lobs the winning tennis ball that takes out France that for theirs last hit. The US now controls all the launchers except the UK.

Student energy and tension are so high; everyone is just buzzing. I don't think everyone's judgement was fully intact. The UK said to the US, "How about, we'll commit suicide and we'll go back to that original deal: 50/50." and the US said, "Fine." So that's how it ended. UK knocked over its own can enough times to be defeated - the US won and also made good on their deal later that day giving the UK team half the m&ms.

Highly exciting.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

What is TA for? Silliness.

Who knew that Frisbee skills would come in handy during school. Ok, well, maybe not Frisbee skills specifically, but post-Ultimate team building games. Speifically: Wa.

There’s no good way to explain Wa over the internet, but suffice it to say you stand in a circle and pass the “Wa” around if you mess up you’re out.

In the middle of the day is this funny 2 minute period called “TA” or Teacher Advisory. It’s like homeroom, where students from all grades come together and hang out and hear announcements. I have often felt a little funny about this time because its purpose is different depending on which teacher you talk to, and I never really feel like I know what to say to kids during this time.

Today, however, TA was a great success because I taught them Wa. They LOVE it and are excited to play it next time.

… Some days it’s in the little things…

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Physics War 2008

The physics war is so much a part of the culture here and my class that I will never be able to stop doing this project. It is for this project that students sign up for my class.

The basic idea is that groups of 4 students get a length of PVC piping, a 2x4, and some surgical tubing (plus a few other nuts and bolts) which is built into basically a giant slingshot with a barrel. It's ... kind of awesome. :) hahaha. The students do a lab where we measure the angle and the corresponding range and explain their results based on the range equation.

This all culminates with a class vs. class physics war where each class has tin cans and they try to knock over other class' cans with tennis balls launched out of their slingshots. The four classes were in four corners of a field with the cans out in front of them. This is then followed with a panel discussion on war. As recommended by my mentor teacher, Tom Tailer, I invited an army recruiter, a returned soldier, a war veteran, and a pacifist and the students could ask them questions.

Well, to be honest, the panel discussion the last couple years has been remarkably lame, only barely physics related, and not nearly as controvertial as I had hoped. So this year I'm shifting. I'm going to make the war part more like Tom's and the post-war debrief less like Tom's.

Tom gives the groups an accuracy test and whoever gets the longest accurately-tested range gets the first choice of country. Yes. Tom sets up the soccer field like a map of the world and the countries available for choosing are known or suspected nuclear powers. Countries can invade each other and take each other's resources, which provides a motivation for who to aim at.

Now, he buys his students like pizza and rice and other "culturally typical" foods, but I wasn't quite ready to buy like eight pizzas for my students. :P So instead I've come up with my own unit of physics war capital: m&m's.

Yes, every country will receive an amount of m&m's proportional to that country's GDP. In order to invade another country (thus taking their m&m's) the aggressing country must knock over that country's can a number of times proportional to that country's millitary strength, measured in dollars spent on millitary.

If they one country invades another they get to take that country's m&m supply.

Meanwhile, I'm morphing the panel discussion into a student debate. We might debate in our own classes questions like "When is war justified?", "What is proper procedure for introducing weapon based on new technology?" (Tazers, EMP bombs, nukes, etc.), "Is it ok to perform medical testing of any kind on prisoners of war?" (The students came up with that last one).

So there we are. I'm pretty excited about it. It should all be going down either Halloween or the Thursday after Halloween. Ohhhh my it will be cold! :/

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Weatherization Training in Physics Class

The Ken Jones-led "Weatherization Training at School" was a total success. I definitely need to write him a thank you note. Students learned about how thermodynamics principles connected to home heating, and got to see weather stripping and where on a door/window it goes. We did some experiments with tin foil boxes and ice cubes - it was great. Specifically we built two boxes out of tin foil. One went over in a corner away from everything. One went on the vent, which was spewing room-temperature air. So which melted first? The one on the vent. Why? Convection. BAM! Students learned that convection is just as important as conduction to account for the heat loss in a house.

Some interesting nuggets:
  • A 1/8" gap around a door (which is typical) is the same area as a 4" hole in your wall. Seal that up!
  • Frequently the holes that are cut for cable to enter a house are not sufficiently sealed up/insulated.
  • The "pink stuff" is not as awesome as people once thought. Apparently it's good for preventing conduction, but is quite awful at preventing convection. You can blow air right through it, and so if there's a way for air to get into the outside part of your wall, and there's an opening to the outside somewhere higher up, it can create a heat pump through the walls of your house!
  • The best windows ever made (for insulation purposes) have an R of 3.5. Whereas regular 1" foam insulation (with tin-foil on the sides) is R: 7.5
Ok that's it for now :)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Update from the NEGEF Retreat

So the reality is I'm exhausted right now and it's not even 10pm. That's preposterous.
In considering where my exhaustion comes from I must site something rather unusual: over-inspiration. Sometimes I think there are just SO many great ideas in the world they wear me out.

I'm currently at the New England Grass Roots Environment Fund annual retreat for grantees. They gave us a grant for the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative.

So let's make a list of all the good ideas that have been thrown at me and apparently are sticking:
1) Carl Etnier (of the Post-Carbon Sustainability Network, WGDR, and WDEV) proposed that he and I lead a professional development workshop for physics teachers about peak oil. We could teach it through Yestermorrow, which he's got some connections with. So I was like... dang. Yea. ok.
2) I just found another young professional Christian person in Montpelier (this is quite rare). I'm now up to 5 of us, and that may just constitute a critical mass to start a discussion group. Focusing quesitons: what does it mean to be a Christian? What is church?

I don't think I've blogged about this at all...

Well... here we go: St. Andrew's Christian Church of Burlington is thinking about starting a church farm. We've started a dialogue with St. Michael's College to see if we can team up with them to use their land since we've got people... but no land.

Anyway here there are at least 2 Burlington-based community garden groups. They want to work with low income families. We want to work with low-income families. BAM! We should team up. Meanwhile there are at least 3 other people here who are connected to church-based gardens. Turns out this is not a new idea. *gasp!* :) So it will be great to take back their contact info so we can ask them questions like "What have you learned from this process? What would you do differently? How do you divide up the harvest? Do you have private plots?"

Meanwhile, I remain feeling over-committed and sleep deprived. And it's only 10:04pm. So I'm going to go to sleep. Cheers, friends!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Cleaning up after the sub...

It's the reason teachers cringe at the thought of a sick day: Sub Plans.

There's no telling who you'll have, and so sub plans must be idiot proof. Not that subs are idiots - I have a lot of respect for anyone who is willing to subject themselves to the great terror students unleash on a spineless substitute. Nonetheless, I would not volunteer myself to teach something like Art, or Biology, or Band. I could get by, but my gosh, nothing would really get done. Even if my students were a little uncomfortable with how it all went down the upshot of these last two days was that everything I asked for did get turned in (yay!).

Sorry ~ yea, this venting is more for me than for you...

And now for more cleaning up of another kind:
During the faculty meeting today a student came up to me and said, "We found this on top of a locker in the boys locker room". It was a stack of cards I had kept in a wallet that went missing last spring. I assumed I had lost it. But as of this afternoon I've come to accept that it was stolen. :( . It shouldn't matter cause it's water under the bridge by now. But wow. weird. I might have lost like $5 or so, but I at least I got back my library card and an un-used bus pass (the credit and debit cards got canceled shortly after it went missing). After reviewing last year's roster I've got it down to a short list of 4 and shorter list of 2 possible people. I guess I should report it to the assistant principal and let it go from there.

I guess I'll not be bringing my wallet to school anymore :P

In other news, in the last week like 3 people have asked me if I've sold my car yet. Wow. Thanks for checking in with me about that. Yea - no. :P Not at all. I've had more conversations about it, and the goal is really live a fossil-fuel-free lifestyle, but I own my car completely, so I could just let it sit somewhere. I might have to park it far away to force me to actually find transportation solutions. This is the running option right now. But as Carolyn K observed this weekend "my values are in conflict".

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Professional Learning Communities with the DuFours

I just returned yesterday from Montreal where a crew from the school district heard Rick and Becky DuFour speak on their rendition of the "Professional Learning Community" model of education. Everything they said was dead on ~ their model makes sense and they have the data to back that up. However, I do feel like it's difficult to apply their model to a small school.

My understanding of their model (in a nutshell) is to have teachers who teach the same course or content administer the same test to their students, and then they'd have data by which they can assess how effective their teaching is. Then teachers can ask each other for help with their areas of weakness.

Sweet. Basing decisions on data seems like a good idea. :)

But how do you do this in a small school? I am the only one teaching my content area. So here are our options (which I have to think a bit about since I'm the PLC leader for the science department):

1) The science teachers talk about the big ideas of science that connect us, and we collect data on those things: inquiry, ethics, sustainability, etc.

2) We find people in the region who teach our same course and we collaborate with them about our actual content, administer similar tests and compare data to each other to see our strengths/weaknesses and then learn from each other.

I'd like to pursue both options, but for now option 1 will be the most easy to implement. I do feel like it might feel somewhat contrived, if we find that we may not actually have that much in common - or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'll surprise myself.

In any case, I miss my kids. I hate having to write sub plans :(

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Operation Plastic Removal

A lot has been going on here, but I really should keep it short because I need to get up early early tomorrow to meet a carpool to drive to Montreal for a training in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). Turns out I'm the leader of my department's PLC, which I suppose is a little like being science department chair. Gah. I just thought about that for realsies today, and it kinda scared me a little bit cause, man, I don't like being in charge. :P bleh. Nonetheless I find myself going to this training tomorrow to become a better PLC leader. Yea.

Meanwhile the Period 7-8 physics class has formed an organization they've named Operation Plastic Removal, or OPR. There's also now officially a facebook group (but I think you have to be invited to join - sorry guys).

The OPR news is that the cafeteria wants nothing to do with renting bottles. This made us pause a bit and re-evaluate what our goals were. We determined that a suitable solution would be to sell mason jars with full screw-top lids. Simultaneously a student came up with a REALLY sweet t-shirt design based on an SNL skit about Sofa King Cool. ha. It's a funny shirt (if you don't get it just say it 5 times really fast). Aaaaand it also involves mason jars. Nice. We'll definitely sell a bunch. I want one and I don't even swear. So we figured we could sell these T-shirts and give away mason jars with them. In addition we could sell Mason Jars alone for 50 cents (cheaper than buying water in the cafeteria).

At this point no one has done the financial analysis to estimate payback time, but that may be a next step, right along with the taste test scheduled for tomorrow - to determine which water fountain in the school is the tastiest.

Meanwhile, what will this have to do with physics? haha - you thought I'd forgotten. Well, what's the downside of mason jars? They break. So what I'd love to do is get different thickness socks, or beer cozies, or the like, and do some impact/impulse/crash test measurements to see what impulse they can withstand. This is totally momentum, force, impact, change in motion ~ basically a physics fiesta. (Ok, now I'm starting to sound like my students, so it's time to go to bed).


Thursday, September 25, 2008

ORE, CAN, and Service Learning

First for some odds and ends:
I think I'm going to video tape the students' water rockets and analyze them in Logger Pro. hahaha. This is going to be awesome. We'll predict the velocity vs. time graphs ahead of time, and then compare them to what we actually get. Yes!

Service Learning (not to be confused with Community Service or Community Based Learning) is addressing authentic community questions/problems through topics embedded in the curriculum. The Service Learning Team in our district is attempting to increase the number of teachers participating in Service Learning type projects, and one of the biggest sticking points we have (and there are a few) is connecting community problems with teacher's curricula. Teachers are often simply unaware of the needs in our community.

Enter the Onion River Exchange (ORE) and Capitol Area Neighborhoods (CAN).

ORE is a time bank, where people offer services (I offer physics tutoring and wine-making help) and needs (ex: could I borrow your car every Sunday? your vacuum?). Basically it's a list of needs in the community.

CAN is a network of Montpelier neighborhoods attempting to plan for winter heating and financial crisis. We're canvassing this weekend, knocking on every door to make sure that people have information about 211, the energy/heating hotline, local foodshelves, etc. We'll do some asset mapping, meaning we'll give out a survey which asks questions like "Do you have a shovel? Snow blower? Are you willing to help a neighbor without a snowblower? Would you like help shoveling?" and my favorite "Do you have expertise in plumbing ... so we can call you at 3am when someone's pipes burst?" I'm TOTALLY excited about getting my neighborhood more connected.

These are two groups that will be very in touch with the needs in our community, which makes them an easy place to look for curriculum connections.

Tomorrow I'm meeting with Ken Jones for ideas of how to connect weatherizing with thermodynamics, so I'll more ideas then, but for now I'm thinking we'll need to put out a survey to student's families to see if there is any interest in us going to their homes to weatherize. There is a residual question about who would get priority for weatherizing materials and labor - first come first serve is easy, but it would have to be dependent on a pre-labor site visit to make sure it's the kind of work we can do, and safe (no viscious dogs or verbally abusive grandmothers, stable floors, and no asbestos, etc.).

Enjoy the lovely day! :)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Impromptu Project: Renting Students Water Bottles

All day today I've been building rockets with my physics students. We're going to use them to as an excuse to run some calculations about acceleration with real data, and also I get to work in some rather tangential physics-related topics: center of gravity, center of drag, gyroscopic motion (rifling), as well as Newton's 3rd Law. It felt awfully like a nonsequitor though to jump in to these other topics while acceleration was the supposed to be the purpose. I could do rockets with Newton's 3rd Law, but really... by the time I get to Newton's 3rd law launching rockets outdoors is unpleasantly chill.

I didn't think 8th period would be much different, but a dialogue from yesterday came up at the beginning of class. We make these rockets out of water bottles from the recycling, and yesterday it came up how plastics have BPA and it's so silly that people buy these bottles over and over, when they could just bring their own.

So today, the kids came up with the idea to rent BPA-free Nalgenes or Kleen Kanteens in the cafeteria to students who forgot to bring bottles of their own, and it'd be cheaper than buying water. Yay! I said, "To heck with the rockets! This is way more interesting". So we spent the entire class hashing out a mission statement, we called Kleen Kanteen and they said they could get us a 30% discount on a <100 shipment of bottles (amount tbd), and we spoke with Debbie the kitchen lady about what we should consider before we go to Betty the head kitchen lady.

This. Is. Awesome.

I'm so excited to see how it all turns out. We really need Betty to be on board, because I do NOT want to wash water bottles after school :( :P

To do this I think we need to show her that this system will pay for itself and how soon that will be, factoring in: extra washing time/man power, soap, initial cost of bottles, and proposed cost of renting a bottle, approximation on how much this would reduce her Dasani water profits.

Meanwhile we should also calculate the increase of local water consumption, ultimately going back to the local utility and staying in Montpelier. I think the students would like to do a taste test of the drinking fountains in the school as compared to Dasani water. My hypothesis: no one will be able to tell the difference when they're all at room temperature.

This is all great. Yummy. Wonderful.
However, at the end of the day I am left feeling a little silly... how will I justify that they are learning physics by doing this?

I could call it a gigantic Fermi problem that got out of control. I could call it chemistry - oh wait, that doesn't work. I could say it's energy. I could say it's unit analysis. Or better yet: Vital Results! haha :) As long as they sufficiently learn about acceleration in the same amount of time as the other students I will be happy. Suggestions welcome... :)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Scientific Election Issues

In case you're interested, I was just sent a link to McCain and Obama's answers to the "top 14 science questions facing America". Fascinating reading... perhaps I'll post more thoughts later.

Monday, September 22, 2008

I Hate Giving Homework

It's true. I can't deny it. I don't want to give it or grade it or find out why kids haven't done it. I might even go so far as to say I'm philosophically against it.

Or at least I was.

I think I may be changing my mind.

I have found homework to be the great divider among socio-economic classes. Those who "have" get it done, those who "don't" don't get it done. I don't have control over what happens to students outside of class; I'm not right there to answer questions; they don't have each other to lean on; it's just setting them up to fail. On top of that I would say that it's healthy to have a separation between work and play in one's adult career, so why should that not be true of student's life? I believe it to be hypocritical for a union teacher to refuse to cut into their own family time to grade or help the school out, and then assign homework.

(This is what the one side of me says - the side that loves my family, that's grateful to my Dad for not bringing work home. It's also the part of me that's lazy and unorganized).

Which brings us to today...

I have like 4 worksheets about acceleration I'd like to do. But... bleh. They're worksheets, and honestly, I burn out on worksheets. The students burn out on worksheets. :( I'd rather build rockets and do labs.

Solution: I should looking at what worksheets are really worth their time, and then which worksheets can be optional. I'll make the worthwhile ones homework and the redundant ones optional, so that we can do rockets during class.

Also, for the most part students haven't really had many questions on the class blogs, probably because I don't give much/any homework - and if I did this there would no doubt be questions. And then they'd get to teach each other. Yay :)

Planning Community-Relevant Projects

So I've got a couple ideas about projects to do with the kiddos that would be active, hands-on, and more or less relevant to their lives.

1) I've contact the Roots School (in Central Vermont), they teach primitive skills, and I think my low level students would TOTALLY appreciate knowing how to build a fire from nothing. Some of them already do, but I would love to teach that in the context of friction, forces, and thermodynamics. How awesome would that be? A teacher from Roots has already responded, so now it's time to plan a bit how it relates to physics, and also figure out where on school grounds this would be "okay" to do.

2) Button-Up Vermont holds workshops to help people do low and no-cost weatherizing solutions. Again as a part of my thermodynamics we could learn how to weatherize people's houses and then ... well... go do it! Tomorrow is Open House, so I'm hoping to solicit families who'd be willing to have us visit their house to do some weatherization work. .... potentially... i mean... assuming we're not busting through walls to insulate places and accidentally encountering asbestos. I'd want to check out the house ahead of time and figure out what work needed to be done and make sure that was within our capabilities as a class. I've already contacted a few people about this and it looks like something will emerge after we meet to nail down more details. (yay!)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Class blog: why isn't Experimental Physics blogging?

It's been about a week since I assigned my experimental physics students to post on their blog, and well, they no one had. A few people left comments, but that's it. So today I opened up that conversation, why weren't they posting? What should we do about it? Is it something that people still want to do? Admittedly it was a little scary to put that out there as a question: "Is this something you guys still want to do?" And to my delight and relief they said, "Yes, but let's start over."
"So how should we start over?"
"Well, I know you showed us on the projector how to post, but honestly, it goes in one ear and out the other just to watch it - errr in one eye and out my ear. I have to do it. So I say let's go down to the computer lab and all post, and then we'll know how to do it."

Brilliant. Thanks to Ben for completely reading my mind and proposing exactly what I was hoping to do.

So I had them ALL post something about peak oil - the content we had just barely covered, so this was a way for them to apply to their lives what they'd just learned about - and the answers were fascinating, funny, and unexpected. For the first few (ones I read while they were still in class) I asked them to edit their punctuation/grammar, but the later ones I just couldn't get to. I think you can really tell who's I caught and sent back for fixing and those I didn't. We really need to work on writing in this school :P

Anyway, it was encouraging to me that they all posted today, and perhaps tomorrow I'll put an assignment out there to read people's posts and comment on someone else's thoughts. I wonder if they will do it on their own time.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Caring for the Earth Conference and Shelburne Farms Harvest Festival

I haven't posted about VSHI in a little while - I suppose that's because we've been working out bugs on the VSHI donation website (carbon offsets) as well as the Addison County LIHEAP Pilot Project. We're hoping to do a massive media-oriented installation next month, and that will hopefully be good for donations as well.

Meanwhile, there are a few conferences coming up worth mentioning.

Caring for the Earth Conference at the Bishop Booth Conference Center in Burlington
October 26-28th, Registration: $40
It's all about faith communities coming together to address global climate change. We'll be looking into the future and see how we can move towards sustainability and help facilitate that transition, so I'm pretty stoked about it. Also VSHI is the very first presentation of the conference and everyone will be there: Gah! Exciting!

30th Annual Shelburne Farms Harvest Festival and Energy Fair
September 20th, Adults: $6, Children $4
There will be music and hayrides and fresh foods, like any good harvest festival should. But I'm sure among other valuable energy information, I'm told there will be a demonstration of grass-tablet making (grass tablets are less energy-intensive to produce), as well as a home-made gasification burner by Ethan Dressigacker (sp?), a teenage heating entrepreneur.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Class Blogs: Punctuation and Grammar

So I was already thinking about how to handle bad grammar/spelling on the class blogs when I went into a 504 meeting today. The parents were very concerned that their student was not getting the grammar and spelling support necessary for good writing in the real world, and that papers for classes other than English ought to grade these aspects as well.

I say: Fair Enough. Thus far I have not really paid much attention to grammar/spelling in, well, anything - mainly because I don't necessarily pride myself as being a good grammaricist or speller (case in point, eh?). However, I don't think my punctuation holds me back from communicating effectively, and there are some really whopping glaring errors in the student entries.

I think I'm coming out with an addition to the requirements for a good blog/post (not just a clarification):
"If your post/comment has egregious spelling or grammar problems I won't approve it, and you'll need to fix the errors before it can be approved."

Class blog: content vs. daily log of activities

The class blogs are "running" now, in that students are posting, but it's not so far what I'd hoped for. It's more like a running log of "what we did" rather than what we're learning. :( Shockingly enough, the first model post that I did was more like a log than what we learned, perhaps because we were only doing introductory, nature of science, stuff, so it didn't feel like "content", but really that just means that I didn't identify what from the nature of science we were learning.

I should say that whatever notes were given that day should be a part of the day's post. Hm. That might be an awkward conversation: adding requirements after I've passed out the guidelines. Well... it's not really adding a requirement, it's that I need to clarify the requirement to post about "what we learned".

Meanwhile, I just had Experimental Physics class choose days, and they seem as into it as the other classes, which I find encouraging.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Student Posting Guidelines and Goals

So far I've shown them all how to log in and write an entry. So I shouldn't have been surprised when I gave them an assignment "look up peak oil, and leave a comment to this post about 'what is peak oil?' in your own words" that they all left entries and not comments. huh. Certainly these are bright kids, but I just didn't teach them how to leave a "comment" and so they did what I had shown them.

Meanwhile, I need to come up with a brief sheet about goals for blog use and guidelines for a good entry or comment.
Why am I having them do this? Why is it important?
1) I want them to learn from each other. This is a place to ask questions.
2) I want give them the opportunity to teach each other. I want them to be able to communicate their learning. It's about decentralizing the source of knowledge.
3) I want them to know how to use this technology (as April said) safely and effectively.

Guidelines for a good post:
1) Include content (ex: acceleration is..., the equation for velocity is...)
2) Include general activities (ex: today we did an Agree/Disagree activity)
3) Include homework
4) Tie in outside sources, other websites, pictures (make sure to site them!), java applets, whatever that helps explain the content.
5) Sign your first name at the end!
6) follows rules from the contract - respectful and clean, science-relevant, no last names, locations, or other identifying qualities, make sure you've dealt appropriately with any copyright issues.

Guidelines for a good comment:
1) ask a question about physics or
2) attempt to answer someone else's question about physics,
3) it can be just something cool that you found on the internet that's relevant to science, the post, or what we're doing in class.
Aaaaand it must follow all the rules from the contract.

Perhaps I'll have people post 2x a week either a post or a comment. Should it be more? 2x a week would be like 8x a month, that's a fair amount, eh?

Agree/Disagree and Facebook

Yesterday and today I've been doing an Agree/Disagree activity, which is where I put a statement on the board and then students move themselves to sign that indicates how they feel about that statement: Strong Agree, Agree, Disagree, or Strongly Disagree. And then they discuss their opinions.

So for your reading enjoyment, here are the statements I put on the board.

  • I like science.
  • Scientific Progress is “good”.
  • One theory is “truer” than another theory if it can explain more observable phenomena. -Karl Popper (my paraphrase)
  • There is no rule in physics that is not violated at some time or other. - Paul Feyerabend
  • There’s no such thing as neutral observation. - Thomas Kuhn
  • If humanity continued forever, someday we would know everything there is to know.
  • Someday soon we will run out of oil.
  • Vermont should build wind farms.
  • The world has more people than it can sustainably support.

They had a hard time with the Paul Feyerabend quote citing that they just didn't know. So I'll probably change that to some other Paul Feyerabend quote.

Also I took an informal poll about what Web 2.0 sites my students were familiar with:
many had experience with myspace,
none one was familiar with livejournal or xanga,
EVERYfreaking one of them has facebook, which is good to know since I now know what common language to use, e.g. "the wall", applications, commenting, "it's like writing a note", etc.

Interestingly, I only know of 3 other teachers in the whole district who have facebook accounts (total of 4), two of us at the high school, one at the middle school, one's the middle school tech coordinator lady. Hmmmm... what does that say? That we live in different technological worlds? For many that's probably true.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Class blogs & Beginnings

I've started the class blogs, and I've learned a bit already:
1) I'm torn about letting them choose usernames. I've got to filter them for appropriateness, and then give them a password. I'm email the web address, their username and password to each of them, but wow, that's taking a long time :P Probably I could write a program to do it for me, but that might actually take more time still! So I should just tell them that their username is their first name and then just write out their password. The set-up process is just taking more time than anticipated.

2) Thus far, in my syllabus and for this blog I've been using my personal email address, and it's occurring to me now that... maybe i should use my work address. About half way through emailing students I switched.

3) I still haven't decided how to go about the schedule of student's blogging/the amount of posting and comments I expect.

In general the classes so far (including my gigantic class and experimental physics) seem really great. They're a good mix of attentive and talkative and respectful. It feels good to have finally met them all.

Meanwhile here are the links to the classblogs! The students haven't started posting there yet cause they don't all have their passwords/usernames yet, but feel free to check 'em out nonetheless!

Period 1
Period 5
Period 6
Period 7

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Breaking the Addiction

Accepting that you have a problem is the first step on the road to recovery...

I've lived with Luwanda the Honda Civic for about 5 years now. It's been a really great time and I've been remarkably thankful for her faithful service to me - I mean we've had our rough moments, but overall I'd say we've treated each other fairly well.

But I think it's getting close to that time...

"Oh, she's probably got a lot of miles" you're thinking - well, not really: not quite 100,000. Anyone that drives a Honda knows that's not nearly its expected lifetime. So why am I thinking about selling my perfectly good car?

(It is increasingly a moral issue for me.)

I am tired of participating in the system that requires oil consumption. There must be an alternative way of living. I don't necessarily anticipate anything truly replacing my car, which ultimately means less mobility, but I see that as a small price to pay for not having war, loss of habitat, international debt, and climate change on my conscience. I am opting out.

So then... how do I proceed? How do my commitments change?

(Let's start with what doesn't need to change, eh?)
I have the luxury of living in a rural/downtown. This means I can bike to my CSA, I live right next to a food Coop. I am within walking distance of 2 movie theatres, bike repair, bottle recycling, my job, ultimate frisbee pick-up, multiple restaurants & bars, including music venues, library, etc. And now... back to what does need to change.

The three reasons I need a car:
  • To see my family in Essex.
  • To get to my church in Burlington
  • To get to parties in Plainfield

  • Family in Essex: I can take the bus, they can pick me up or I can ride my bike from the bus stop (that would take ~1hr)
  • Church in Burlington: I'm not sure I've got this figured out yet... I could take the bus up on Friday into Burlington, stay overnight Saturday and Sunday, take the bus back on Monday. Or, take the bus up on Friday, sign out one of the "shared cars" from CarShareVermont and stay overnight in Essex. Start a Carshare in Montpelier and sign it out for Sunday only.
  • Parties in Plainfield: I'll just have to meet some people from Montpelier traveling out that way any time there's a party and ... probably plan on camping more.

Or I just don't go to church in Burlington. Or I don't party in Plainfield. Or I see my family less.
These are all possibilities, and possibilities I'm willing to accept.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Thoughts before starting the new year...

Today was our first day of inservice and though I don't have any inspired thoughts from that, I do have to say that the beginning of the school year feels a little rushed into - like I haven't really relaxed completely this summer enough to become eager for the beginning of school.

Maybe this means I need a massage. Maybe it means I need to pick more berries, or go to Bolton Falls again, but it might just mean that my life is busy and at no point will it naturally become un-busy without my intentionally making it so.

So here we go diving in to the new year, and in the next few days the projects I see looming in the distance will, with any luck, snap into focus. The key here is to keep the conversations going with the right people, and also to keep an open hand as the projects change, emerge, and develop into something I hadn't anticipated at all. If I clamp down too soon it will ruin the dream before it's fully formed and before it has increased its potency to the point of being a reality.

I'm writing this out here perhaps in part for you, but really for me - because I need to hear it. Keep the open hand, let it emerge, but don't drop it either.

Last year's projects were... admittedly less than impressive and I believe it's because it was too much about me, and insisting upon making a difference in the world. But it's funny how picky reality is, and how the dialogue between imagination and reality end up with a manifestation that is somewhere in between...

Ok - enough blabbering about abstract things ~

In other news my intern from last year got a job near by and her first day with students was today, and so I'm eager to hear from her how it went.

Monday, August 18, 2008

VPT with Senator Bill Doyle

Last week was Jackie and Ashley's last week as enVision Montpelier's Americore Vistas, so there was a going away party for them, and at that party I got to meet Senator Bill Doyle who's like 86 and still loves being a senator. We talked for a while about physics teaching and then he was like, "I have a weekly television program where I interview people. How'd you like to be on my show? Does next week work for you?"

Why sure!

So this past week I brought a bunch of physics toys (thanks to the help of the ever-helpful Eli Rosenberg) and we talked about energy and heating and it was lots of fun. We started getting into the heat issue some after the show and he was like "This is very important and relevant stuff. How'd you like to bring two other people and be on my show again next week?" Of course, sir, I'm sure they'd love to.

I never thought I'd *ever* be on one of those public access channels. I hope they put some psychodelic pictures behind us.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pellet Production Coops?

With the LIHEAP pilot project up and "running" I have recently been turning my attention towards production, which is an entirely different beast it seems.

The in-state pellet production plants I have heard of are scattered, but for kicks let's list them here:
The Burlington Free Press recently reported on a new start up in North Troy, VT. It would site on 10 acres of land.
There's Rick Barstow of Adamant, VT who plans to sell grass pellets this fall.
Roy Petraw has a small-scale pelletizer (though i've misspelled his name).
Andy Boutin may be going into this business
And the Rutland-owned Bixby folks may produce pellets this season.

All that is to say, there's just a handful of entrepreneurs at this point. Ideally, pellet manufacture plants would be a farmer/logger-owned co-op to ensure that they get a fair price for their product. But where do you start? No one's really got a sellable grass pellet at this point, so where do we start?

Well, there's one player I left out which is a family from Addison County. If I can find enough investors he'll issue bonds (or something like that), so that he can purchase the necessary equipment and begin production. Within a few years the bonds will have expired and the investors will have made a better-than-bank interest, and the family will be free to take on other partner-owners who would also have material to be pelletized. So basically we'll move from single-supplier to multiple supplier, from wood-pellet to mixed pellet, and from investor-owned to farmer/logger-owned, which all seems yummy to me.

Of course... it all sounds so simple right now... :)

Monday, July 28, 2008

KSTF Summer Meeting 2008

I just got back from the KSTF Summer Meeting with all the fellows, and while it was amazing for many different reasons, ultimately what matters is how this will affect my classroom. There are three major things that I’m taking away from this meeting, two of which came unexpectedly after all the official sessions were over, after the post meeting games were played and I decided by chance to go to the bar.

Take away piece #1 from April Luehman’s session on Blogging for the Classroom
I’m starting class blogs.
Yes. Blogs – plural. One for each, and inspired by April’s model, I’d like to have the onus of authorship distributed to the students. “We are co-constructing a physics textbook for the world” as April likes to say. So every day a different student will be responsible for blogging the day’s notes, and jotting down some notes as to what we did. Then students will be required to participate through commenting at least 2x a month either by asking or answering a question. Parents will have access to this but not authorship rights. And all comments have to be approved by me, the admin, before they actually get posted to reduce spam.

Prior to students blogging, they’ll need to sign a safety and civility contract - cause we don’t want them posting last names, or non-relevant material. I’ve stolen April’s contract to base mine off of.

I requested a site through April, which will be free which includes unlimited storage space and access to surveys (which is usually NOT free), so I can do online homework. She hasn’t sent me the approval yet, but I’m excited to get started setting that up.

We need to be teaching the next generation responsible online conduct, and so what better way than … in school! Likewise, this model of blog use is very postmodern in that the students are both the teachers and the learners, and the motivation for learning physics comes through personal relationships.

Other examples of class blogs: Accelerated 8th Grade Blog, PIB Physical Science

Take away piece #2 from Glen Botha of San Francisco
I’m adopting Glen’s electricity project
Glen said that he bought something called the Kilowatt on ebay for $20.00 which you can put around the electric cord of any appliance and it will tell you how much current is flowing through it. He was then able to determine at his own apartment that he pays $7 a month for his tevo, and that its standby mode doesn’t really change the rate of electricity use.

He listed every single appliance in his house, its wattage and an approximation of how many hours it’s on per day or per month, and then calculated what his electric bill should have been, and then compared it to what his electric bill actually was.

Then. He made his students go through that process: list every appliance, its wattage and hours of use, and predict your electric bill and then compare to the actual bill.

He did the same for his gas bill, which was $10-12 every month, even for months during which he was gone all month. His bill never changed! So he called them up to ask why that was, and they said it was probably he pilot light. So he researched pilot lights and found out that the amount of therms required to run a pilot light amounted to approximately $11/month. He had found it! They suggested he have someone come turn off the pilot light since in SF, CA they never need heat (it’s not connected to their hot water). The guy came over and instead suggested he cancel is heat – and so that is what he did.

Through doing this project with his class, Glen’s students discovered that for some households their xBox360 cost them more than their refrigerator per month. He said one student started limiting his play to a couple hours a week, motivated not by his mother, or that it’s not good for him, but because his family was really poor and it cost them some quantifiable amount of money to play. He found out that some students who were paying $400/month in electric bills were eligible for a more cheaper rate and was able to lower it to $80/month. He did have to get parents to sign a waiver to release their electric bill and he only had one parent object, so he gave the student his own apartment to analyze.

Take away piece #3 also from Glen Botha of San Francisco
I’d like to further develop Glen’s idea of informing consumers.

What if… What IF! Oi! What if it was commonplace to the informative technology currently found in hybrids in other types of regular fuel cars? People would be able to see that they get significantly better gas mileage at 65 mph than 80 mph. People would see that accelerating rapidly wastes gas, and we could probably reduce gas consumption by a measurable amount simply by making that information immediately available to people.

Likewise, why is my electric meter on the outside of my house in a unit of measure that is not easily interpreted by the layperson? What if instead we put electric meters on the inside of houses and have them read out in dollars per minute or per hour – something that means more to the average person. And they’d be able to see rate of their consumption change by exactly some dollar amount when they shut off a light or unplugged their tevo or turned on their toaster.

Does this device exist? oh yes, yes it does. But why haven't I heard of it. Perhaps I should get one, eh?
Bottom line: Information Is Power.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Project Porchlight at St. Andrew's Christian Church

The other day I ran into Heidi of Project Porchlight, and I mentioned to her that my church would be game for helping pass out compact fluorescent light bulbs (that’s their mission – in order to reduce the demand on the grid and lower our carbon footprint). She suggested that instead of holding a special training for us and giving us a route to go canvas/give away bulbs, she recommended that I just take a bag of bulbs and give them away at my church. Ha! Ok! :)

So this past Sunday, St. Andrew’s Christian Church of Burlington had a collaborative outdoor worship service with Colchester Baptist and First Baptist Church of Burlington (whose basement we currently use) and I gave away compact fluorescent light bulbs. People loved it. (Of course they loved it! They were free, and they’ll save people money, and they’ll help the environment).

I’ve been impressed lately with two things (one of which I'll blog about later): I believe consumers would more easily drive the market towards sustainable choices if sustainable choices were available. For example, if I could choose to have my laptop shipped in sustainable packaging instead of Styrofoam packing peanuts (even if it was like $2 more) I’d choose that. If I could choose biodegradable shopping bags over conventional shopping bags, I’d choose that too. If I could go to a restaurant and have the choice of locally produced or organic food options I would hands-down no question choose that. But I feel that many times those choices just don’t exist. I see it as my job as a consumer to demand better options. This is also effectively what the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative has been doing: creating opportunity for sustainable living where it previously was not an option. Everyone deserves the opportunity to live without polluting. And if polluting is, well, sin, then I believe it is the role of the church to help facilitate these kinds of opportunities. We should be helping people out of their environmental transgressions.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Starting a Farmer's Biomass Cooperative?

Lately I've been dreaming of starting a farmer-owned coop of pellet production, so that even Vermont's micro farmers with just a few acres can ultimately commit to the commercial scale demands for biomass heat and get some share of the profits.

This is of course way beyond the scope of anything I think I've done so far. But then... so is everything else VSHI has accomplished.

I've started dialoging with a few people about the idea and so far the feedback is positive. I've spoken with my CSA farmer (Joe at Screamin' Ridge Farm in Montpelier), pellet guru Andy Boutin, and my roommate the law school student. From all I've gathered from them, it sounds like the next steps are to
1) contact the Sustainable Jobs Fund
2) contact Casella the Garbage and Recycling collectors
3) go visit Andy Boutin's set up.

Meanwhile, I should probably track down David Zuckerman and run the idea by him and Jessie's mom from the Extension service.

... sometimes I wonder if I'll ever be done with this project ... :P :)

Friday, July 18, 2008

An Update on VSHI

Things in the world of the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative have been cruising for some time now. So here's where we're at:

The director of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program sent out a survey to its petroleum consuming recipients, soliciting interest in our pilot program. So far we've received more than 40 surveys back indicating interest (yay!). Now all we need is money to buy them stoves.

How do we get money to buy them stoves? That's where the Carbon Offset Program comes in. Since we're specifically targeting fossil-fuel users and converting them to biomass heat, this warrants a carbon offset since the biomass is a short-carbon-cycle fuel and the fossil fuels are long-carbon-cycle.

At the moment we're selling offsets for $25/ton, but that may be lowered. We've done the calculation like four times, and it comes out slightly differently each time depending on our assumptions. So it will probably end up somewhere in the range of $9-25/ton. The page is about 90% done, and we're hoping to get some big name corporations and legislators to participate. Until everything is up and running I don't expect it to generate a lot of money.

Just a piece on the logistics: Families who receive a stove will be asked to pay us a down payment + whatever they can afford per month until they've paid off the stove. Thus it's not so much a grant as it is a no-interest loan.

Meanwhile I'm meeting today with Garth of CVCLT to discuss how to engage landlords in this transition as well as brainstorming how to convert my condo complex, the apartment complex next door and across the street. Actually I should probably go so I'm not late :) Wish me luck!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Collaborating with other Physics Teachers

After the 7am-11pm intense week at Engineering Camp I flew to Portland, Oregon to meet up with two other Knowles Fellow physics teachers (Zach Ronneberg, and Bradford Hill) to work on streamlining our curricula, adding essential questions, and exchanging ideas in general. And basically it was a wicked sweet time. 

As a result of this week I will be: 
  • adding a unit on thermo, where we'll build some kind of cool sun-energy device like a solar oven, hot dog cooker, or parabolic trough type device. We'll heat up water, use Q=cm(T2-T1).  It'll be great.
  • using OmniOutliner to track my curriculum (hazaa!) 
  • Oh yea we built these IR diode devices to use in conjunction with a Wii remote to function like a SmartBoard, only for about $50 instead of $2,000. hAha!  
  • I've got a ton of essential questions now
  • My unit on Egg Bungee Jumping is now "differentiated" 
  • I've decided to go with the "learning is not optional" motto. So that when students get done they still have to work on something - even if it's grabbing a Scientific American from the back of the room. This is critical for differentiated instruction to be functional.
Other things I learned include: Portland O is pretty much just like Vermont only more populated. Similar values. Similar zoning laws. Similar lifestyles (frisbee, raspberry picking, Subaru-driving). 

I'd say at least 30% of the benefit of being a Knowles Fellow is hanging out with other Knowles Fellows, cause they're so driven, interesting, and bursting with ideas. So that made this  trip one of the best Summer Professional Development things I've done through Knowles yet. 

Governor's Institute of Vermont for Engineering

Yet again, I've spent too much time away from blogging and more than I can communicate has transpired.

So let's start with the the Governor's Institute of Vermont for Engineering. (more pictures available at this website!)

This was a packed week of fast paced, hard-playing, frisbee-loving, explosion-watching, and project-building. 130 kids, half from VT, half from around the country and the world gathered at UVM to study aeronautical engineering, robotics, or renewable energy systems and sustainability. We had presentations from such illustrious figures as John Cohn, Kerri Bernstein, and Lt. Governor Brian Dubie, all the while working on some project of their choosing. I worked with the Renewable Energy and Sustainability strand, which had a lot of fascinating projects. Here are a few sketches of my favorite projects:

1) The 4-inch Nozzle Boys
A guy in Montpelier has developed a retro-fit for your home fuel oil burner to burn pellets instead. Unfortunately, you need a 6-inch nozzle to make that happen, and most standard oil burners have a 4-inch nozzle. So these guys took a 4-inch pipe and burned pellets through it to see how efficient that process could be. Well... I should say, most of the work was done in the construction of the device and not the data taking, but they did learn a whole lot through building it. We actually got Jock Gill and Andy Boutin to come up and play with these guys for a couple days, and they had a blast!

2) the solar trough
This group constructed a parabolic trough, lined it with sections of flat mirror and then put a copper pipe along the focal line. They measured the temperature increase over time and the observed the drop in water level over time, and were able to do some yummy calculations from that. I just heard today that an article using a similar principle was published in a recent version of IEEE, only the device was a mile long, but could generate an enormous amount of power.

3) Emergency Stoves or Stoves for Humanity
The problem: in emergency situations people gather fuel to burn in open fires which are not very efficient. If you have two large tin or steel cans you can remedy this. So this group focused on a simple two-can stove design that could be built using only a bottle opener and a can opener (which one would assume you'd also have), and created a cartoon that could be printed on the cans (without words) so that people anywhere would understand how to construct such a device.

The United Packaging Adjustment Cooperative came out of this group, which was inspired by Dawn Densmore of UVM. She has been working to reduce packaging in the US through working towards requiring packaging information to be printed on the package. The students designed a logo that could published on a label that would include the %recycled content, the %recyclability, the average distance traveled by the product, and the %of the package by weight compared to the product - all hoping that the information available will pressure industries to package products more reasonably.

All these groups and more were judged by a panel at the University Mall in Burlington and given awards in a variety of areas. Sssshhh don't tell, but my dad and ex-boyfriend were on the panel *gasp*!

I got a real kick when one of the kids was like "check out that guy's beard", referring to my dad, "tell me you don't want that beard! That is so cool". Haha. Thanks kid.

My other favorite moment was the Condiment Duel at the Sandbar State Park, where Andrew challenged me to a duel so I got to use strawberry sauce and i made him use whipped cream.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Force Concept Inventory Results for Year 1

This year I gave my students a physics exam called the Force Concept Inventory (available here). The idea is to give this Newtonian Mechanics test at the beginning of the year before anything has been taught, and then again after you've finished Newtonian Mechanics as a way to measure student progress, effective teaching, growth as a teacher over the scale of years.

This is the first year I'd ever given this test, so I didn't expect high results, especially considering we didn't cover centripetal motion at all. Something else to note is that I did not actually give the test at the beginning of the year, I gave it just before we covered "force", so the point gain is artificially low. I just tallied the results yesterday, and had some rather interesting discoveries.

For my classical physics class students gained about 3.5 points (out of 30), I only had one student regress, and I had 2 or 3 receive the same score. Those students who remained the same or regressed were mostly in the same class and I would normally consider them "bright" students, however they were singularly difficult students for me to connect with. Bright, but unfortunately apathetic, or perhaps "too cool" for my class. And now we have the proof that it, indeed, did nothing for them.

My Experimental Physics Class was a different story however. I only had six students who were enrolled in both the first and second semesters and took both tests, and un-expectedly, four of these students made no gains at all. It was shocking and hubling to find that 2/3 of the student population hadn't apparently "learned" any physics over the year. Shocking. The student with the highest gains jumped 6 points and another moved up 3 points, which averaged out to 1.5 pts/person, but what this tells me is that either I'm not getting through to them, or they're not prepared to take this sort of assessment. Or both. Curious, curious.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Announcing the Vermont Fuel and Food Partnership

And now for some shameless self-promotion.
Check out Governor Douglas' speech from yesterday - especially the paragraph that starts "Vermonter's care about each other."

Thanks Governor Douglas, let's talk.

State of Vermont

Official Remarks of the Governor
Announcing the Vermont Fuel and Food Partnership
Thursday, June 12, 2008

Thank you President Handy for your hospitality-I'm delighted to be at Vermont Technical College to announce an important, wide-ranging, collaborative effort to help Vermont's families address the rising cost of fuel.

Today, we are taking meaningful, additional steps to help Vermont respond to the national recession that has caused our state such marked economic anxiety. Every Vermont family is facing the realities of soaring gas prices, rising food costs and the threat of home heating oil reaching unaffordable levels in the coming winter.

Solving these problems will require an effort that goes beyond government alone.

We're fortunate to live in a state where there is a strong network of community-based organizations and programs to help Vermonters when times get tough. Our partners like the Area Agencies on Aging, Community Action Agencies, Efficiency Vermont, Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, Vermont Economic Development Authority, Vermont Housing Finance Agency, and the Vermont Foodbank, among many others, are very important and very valuable
allies in our efforts to protect the most vulnerable and build a stronger, more innovative economy.

Vermonters care about each other. In communities across our state, organizations and individuals are stepping up to help Vermonters in need, in creative and effective ways. The state Seasonal Fuel Assistance Office is working with the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative (VSHI) - led by students at Mt. Abraham and Montpelier High Schools - to help low-income individuals convert from fuel oil to wood pellet furnaces.

The Fuel Assistance Office recently received a call from the Union Bank requesting information for a fuel awareness day they will be holding, to help educate Vermonters about how to prepare for the upcoming fuel season.

And right here at Vermont Technical College-the home of innovative energy efficiency and renewable energy programs-there is a community garden where employee volunteers sow, plant, weed and harvest. Once a week community members are able to purchase fresh organic produce from the garden at very affordable prices. The local food shelf receives regular donations of fresh vegetables from the project as well.

Great things are happening, but not all Vermonters know about these efforts.

We need to bring together all of this creative energy, compassion and information - we need to marshal all of our resources - to ensure that we make the most of every dollar, help reaches those who need it most and, most importantly, that no Vermonter is left in the cold.

To bring everyone together-and to harness all available resources--I have established a cabinet-level task force chaired by Lt. Governor Brian Dubie and Secretary Neale Lunderville. And I have directed them to focus every effort and every resource Vermont can bring to bear to help manage the effects of higher energy costs on Vermont families.

* * *
Like other Americans, every Vermont family and business understands the stark reality of skyrocketing gas prices. With gasoline approaching $4.25 a gallon and diesel near $5.00 a gallon Vermonters are paying dearly at the pump.

The hard fact is there is very little we can do at the state level to effect the international oil markets in the short term. I'm pleased Congress is beginning to consider action that could provide Vermonters with relief from skyrocketing oil and gasoline prices. While I will continue to take every step available to state government to hold down the price of fuel - like continuing to oppose increases in the gas tax - ultimately Vermonters know that federal action is also necessary to address this growing energy crisis.

I applaud our congressional delegation's work to move the debate in the right direction. I also encourage all members of Congress and the Bush administration to make this fundamental economic issue their top priority.

The cost of gas and worries about the upcoming heating season are topmost on Vermonters' minds. That's why these issues must be addressed immediately and effectively by officials in Washington D.C.
The programs I outline today are practical, near-term and meant to help deal with the realities we face today when it comes to sky-high gas prices.

Today we're launching a new website to give commuters the tools to make more affordable transportation choices.<> will provide Vermonters with a range of options to help them identify more affordable transportations options and locate alternatives to single-occupancy commutes.

This site will be a one-stop way to plan trips using bus route maps, to locate convenient park & ride locations across Vermont, offer tips on fuel conservation and identify locations with the lowest gas prices. We're also providing links to an online carpool matching system for Vermonters, so we can all pitch in and use the ties of community to help save gas.

I'm e-mailing state employees, encouraging them to carpool and use other transportation options to help cut down on the number of car trips generated within state government. With 9,000 employees, state workers can have a real effect on energy usage by carpooling, teleconferencing and limiting official travel.

The Park and Ride system lets Vermonters drive to convenient, local points to access mass transit and meet carpools. This summer I've asked VTrans to expedite our 20% expansion of the Park and Ride system. And we will work with the MPO and Regional Planning Commissions to identify capacity in private lots to add additional Park & Ride spots for Vermont commuters.

We're also seeking new ways to help Vermont businesses compete by using technological solutions. Many of Vermont's traditional rural industries rely on diesel trucks. To improve the efficiency of these trucks, I've asked VEDA to explore a low-interest loan program to equip them with Auxiliary Power Units (APUs). These units can help lower costs by giving truckers electrical power without idling and burning $5.00 a gallon diesel fuel.

* * *
As food prices rise along with the cost of fuel, we need to make sure families don't go hungry in Vermont. There are some things state government can do to help, and there are other things that will require neighbor helping neighbor. And some things are just common sense.

We will extensively promote Vermont's "Buy local" initiative through the Agency of Agriculture, as well as the "Grow an Extra Row" gardening program. Over the coming weeks as Vermonters tend to their gardens, we hope they'll plant an extra row of produce to donate to their local food shelf.

Locally grown Vermont produce is among the finest in the world and now it's a more affordable option than ever. Shifting just 10% of Vermont's food consumption to locally grown meat, dairy and produce would not only save Vermonters money but would also pump $130 million dollars into our state's economy.

At my direction, the Agencies of Agriculture and Human Services are expanding the ability of farmers' markets to accept debit and EBT cards. There are presently three farmers' markets with this capacity and we will expand that number to 15 this summer. This will provide
Vermonters-including our food stamp recipients-more convenient access to fresh, affordable, locally grown food.

The federal food stamp program is one of the best was for use to assist the most vulnerable Vermonters. At the present time, only 70% of those eligible for food stamps use the service. To be sure everyone eligible has the opportunity to benefit, I've asked the Agency of Human Services to enhance our outreach efforts to ensure those eligible for food stamps receive them. Lt. Governor Dubie will also work with AHS and the Area Agencies on Aging to ensure no elderly Vermonter goes hungry.

Finally, we'll be working closely with the Vermont Food Bank, local food shelf programs and Meals on Wheels to encourage community-based charitable efforts to support them. These organizations are supported largely by private donations. I hope to encourage those Vermonters who can to join Dorothy and me in making donations to the Vermont Food Bank, and our local food shelf and Meals on Wheels program. Even the smallest donation can make a real difference, and it is in the best Vermont tradition to reach out to help a neighbor in need.

* * *
Today, the sun is shining, another beautiful Vermont summer is upon us, and the last thing we want to think about is another winter heating season-but we must.

We must face the growing reality that fuel prices this winter may be out of reach for many families. Though fuel prices are a product of the international market, Vermonters have in our power the ability to take steps to make homes more weatherized and energy efficient and to use less fuel.

As Governor, I am committed that no Vermonter should spend this winter - or any winter - in the cold.

Vermont has the most generous Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in the country, and we benefit from a robust weatherization program. In total, Vermont state government is presently investing over $32 million in fuel assistance and weatherization programs. We also enjoy the generous support of our private and non-profit community partners like Efficient Vermont and the Community Action Agencies who contribute millions more to the effort.

But spending isn't the only answer. Our goal must be to reduce demand for fuel-and demand for these assistance programs-by making homes more fuel efficient. Simple, low-cost tasks, like getting a furnace cleaned and serviced, saves on average 18% in fuel costs over the winter season. It's hard to argue with the cost-effectiveness of these services.

We will encourage Vermonters to tap the extensive resources the state offers to make their homes more energy efficient, to weatherize them against the elements, and to assist families who are struggling to pay heating bills. There are public and private programs across Vermont to serve a variety of heating needs, and we will work tirelessly to integrate their efforts with those of the state and to direct Vermonters to the most effective programs for their needs.

We will establish a Winter Heating Helpline and a Vermont Winter Heating Assistance Website which will serve as one-stop clearinghouses for all energy assistance programs. To provide Vermonters with additional access to the information and resources they need to address fuel costs, we will also organize and conduct 8 regional energy workshops over the summer and we will engage the Town Energy Committees in our effort as well. Vermont 2-1-1 will also serve as our partner to direct Vermonters to our helpline for additional services.

Through these one-stop clearing houses of information, Vermonters will be able to tap expert advice, obtain services for weatherization, energy efficiency programs and fuel conversion. These resources will also help qualified families apply for LIHEAP.

Expanding access to existing services is only one part of the solution. We understand that increased demand will require increased resources to help Vermonters make smart weatherization and efficiency choices.

Today, I am pleased to announce that we are on track to release an additional $1 million into the traditional weatherization program that serves individuals and families at or below 60% of the median income. This money will help community action agencies provide weatherization services to the most vulnerable.

Of course, there are many Vermonters that don't qualify for existing weatherization programs, but still have a demonstrable need for the services. To serve these individuals and families, I am taking steps to infuse additional resources that will help expand the reach of existing programs.

I am asking the Agency of Commerce to release $2 million in Community Development Block Grant funds to community-based weatherization and energy efficiency programs.

I am also proposing the creation of a State Weatherization Revolving Loan Fund that will provide no or low-interest loans to middle income Vermonters for weatherization and efficiency upgrades. With a $9 million state investment over four years, we can help two to four thousand homeowners with up to $20 million in needed energy improvements. All of these weatherization and efficiency improvements have a quick payback-with all of the savings going back into the pocket of the homeowners. This is especially true as fuel prices continue to rise.

As market demand for efficiency and weatherization expands through our efforts, we must also grow the number of qualified and trained contractors capable of providing these services.

The Vermont Department of Labor will help develop workforce training programs to quickly expand the number of qualified and trained contractors in the fields of energy auditing, weatherization and alternative energy system installation.

These professions will assist Vermonters with retrofitting existing homes for energy savings and building new energy efficient homes. Working with the Community Action Agencies and Efficiency Vermont, Vermont Technical College and other partners we will accelerate these essential training programs.

These are difficult times for working families, but Vermont has faced these kinds of challenges before, and is a national example of how deep community roots and a strong commitment to seeking new solutions can resolve even the most difficult challenges. I know that the strength and determination of Vermonters will lead us past these difficult times and leave us with a state that is stronger and more energy independent than ever before.

What I've laid out today is the start of a very strong program to address the rising cost of fuel. All of these ideas, and those that will develop as the task force continues its work with our partners, can be accomplished by working together.