Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Roads vs. Paths, or Who Conforms to Whom?

Ever since I heard the Dredg song Pyramid, I've loved the line "We live like penguins in the desert/why can we live like tribes?" It made me think of summer time office buildings that are over air conditioned such that it makes one wish for a sweater.

I went to a conference this last weekend on Christianity & the Arts in Middlebury and I went to a session led by Matt Dickerson, a computer science professor and Tolkien scholar (author of Following Gandalf, Ents, Elves, and Eriador: the Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien, and From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy). So I was pretty excited about that session, and I seem to have emerged with something I'm still chewing on.

We read an essay by Wendell Berry from The Art of the Commonplace, which touched on the difference between a road and a path. Matt said that a road was like conquest of the Earth. A road is the fast place from here to there, never mind what's in between: plow through the hills, uproot the trees. Nature is in the way, and so we plow over it. Whereas a path is a submission to nature. If the hill curves around, so does the path. If there is a cliff, we go around it. It is working within the environment we've got. In short, a road transforms nature to meet my needs, and with a path it is I who conform.

And today it occurred to me that that is really the same idea behind the Dredg lyric - we shape the earth to meet our needs so that it is a pleasant 70 degrees no matter where we are rather than sweating a bit in the summer.

One quote from the session has stuck with me from C.S. Lewis' Abolition of Man:
"There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men".

I think I might present my students with some philosophy of science type questions and ask them to write a reflection on them. I love physics. :)

Renewable Energy Presentations are Beginning!

Today was the first day of renewable energy project presentations. Apparently my intern has been talking about my class in her science methods course, so the teacher approached me yesterday wondering if she could bring her class to see my presentations, so of course I agreed. So we had a troop of college kids in my somewhat small 7th period class today.

The presentations went really well. The kids had great calculations, conclusions, and for the most part were very into the work they had done.

Afterwards the college kids said the presentations had been "college level work, like I'd expect to see this in one of my classes", which I plan to pass along to these students. We talked about how to modify this to a lower level physics course. We talked about how I had the lower level students create their own rubric for their presentations.

The teacher wondered if I had published about any of this work, and I said I had (so I showed them the Science Teacher article), but even so the teacher later asked me if I'd be willing to work with her on writing another article about my work. Ha! How exciting.

Anyway, I'm just glad to have a bit of closure (just two more classes to go - but they won't be ready for at least another week or so, and frankly I don't have that kind of patience). :P

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Started My National Board Application

Some of my colleagues at the Knowles Science Teachers meeting wanted to know what it was like to go through the National Board Portfolio process. So I told them and it from that conversation it seems to me that I ought to write a list entitled Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Started My National Board Application.

I wish I'd
  • read all the response questions before I even planned the lessons
  • joined a National Board Support class/group
  • studied harder for the test (harder? this one might be moot, since hindsight is always 20/20, there's no guarantees that I would've studied the right thing - and far be it from me to let slip what's on it)
  • I think it probably would've been a really good idea to the Take-One option, so to get my feet wet, feel the whole thing out and then go for the rest of it.
Maybe this list will get longer, but that's it for now. (I'm sure I'll refer back to this post when Knowles asks me to present about my NBPTS experience at their summer meeting in July).

Concept Attainment Game

This past weekend was the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation's Spring Meeting for the '04 cohort (which I'm a part of) in San Diego, CA. Amy Germundson from Virginia (who's working with Carole Ann Tomlinson, a "Differentiated Instruction" genius) worked with our cohort to help us critique a differentiated instruction lesson from our own classrooms: totally helpful. One of the techniques I learned was called Concept Attainment. So here's how you play:

I give Positive Examples and Negative Examples of a principle or pattern and you hypothesize about what the principle/rule is.

Hey, let's try it:

Positive Examples
jersey cows

Negative Examples
ripe watermelon
the sun
fresh snow

If you guessed "Things that are brown", then you win!

Do you get how it works? Ok, let's try a harder one:

Positive Examples
Wind power
Hydro (dam) power

Negative Examples
Nuclear Fission
Hydro (tidal) power

i'll post the answer in the comments section ;)

Monday, April 21, 2008

Lungless Frogs and Remembering to Breathe

Just for kicks (since we're on April break right now), let's talk about some weird discoveries in science, specifically a lungless frog discovered in Indonesia. Apparently it "breathes" through its skin, which is extraordinarily rare among tetrapods.

Why was I thinking about this? Cause I just finished watching Rob Bell's NOOMA video called Breathe, which is neither environmental, nor education, nor physics related, but nonetheless yummy.

Don't forget to breathe this week :)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Miss Wizard at Langdon Street Cafe

Yesterday marked the end of Langdon Street Cafe's second annual Geek Week festival, and as a part of the ultra-nerdy festivities they invited me to bring my most favorite demonstrations and show them off during the "Show and Tell" section. That was pretty fun.

I had a section called "Things that spin", in which I did a bunch of tricks with a bike wheel with a handle (similar to this). Gosh, there's so much deep deep physics you can do with very simple devices!

I made a double-conic shape roll "uphill" on its own. I talked about frisbees and bernoulli's principle.

Later I had a section on electricity, for which we tried to get kids hair to stand up by touching a Van De Graaf generator. We put a stack of tin plates on top of it and watched them throw themselves upwards and outwards. We put rice crispies at the top and watched them dance and jump off making a fabulous mess. :)

But, the highlight for the cafe and for myself as well was prior to "Show and Tell", a section billed as "Quantum Mechanics 101", during which I gave a basic introduction to three key experiments that people should be at least aware of if they wanted to get into QM. Specifically those are:
Young's Double Slit Experiment
The Measurement Problem (along with Schrodinger's Cat)
Entanglement, the EPR Paradox, and Aspect's Experiment

Saint Michael's College loves VSHI

As usual I'm behind on blogging about the cool stuff that's been going on (perhaps because of the cool stuff!?)

I was invited to speak at Saint Michael's College by their "Green Up" group about the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative's work, which was pretty sweet. Here's the poster Dan (my contact) made up for it:

Green Up SMC would like to thank everyone that made it out to see Jim Merkel yesterday.

Today, Wednesday, April 16, we are presenting:

Anne Watson

Montpelier High School physics teacher

speaking about her project:

Grasses for the Masses: switchgrass and Vermont’s energy future

Farrell Room (St. Edmund’s Hall), 4:30-5:30 p.m.

Anne will be speaking about the work that she and some of her students are doing to reduce Vermont's reliance on fossil fuels through the growth of switchgrass on unused farm land for use as a renewable biofuel.


Check out our full schedule of events for Earth Week at our new website:


It was probably our best-received presentation yet. They were so enthusiastic. Dan was like, "listen, we're in. Whatever you guys need we'll help with: funding, volunteers, whatever". Woe. Sweet. Sometimes I forget that this stuff is pretty cool. So now we've just got to figure out how to involve them.

Here are some possibilities:
  • Man a Farmer's Market booth helping spread the word/advertize/collect email addresses of interested homeowners
  • Help fund the Farmer's Market booth
  • Help us set up a carbon offset program (I know: evil. but nonetheless useful for facilitating a transition)
  • Get trained on how to weatherize people's houses, and then... go do that :)
We'll see. The whole thing was VERY encouraging.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

How to Flush a Toilet

Yesterday I was over at a friend's house for a vegetarian potluck, and in case that doesn't give it away, these folks are hardcore about their environmental stewardship, and so I thought I might share something of things I learned that night.

Until yesterday I had never really wrapped my head around what makes a toilet flush. I knew the tank fills with water until you push the lever, which opens a valve which lets water rush into the bowl... and then... yea... it all goes away... magically :)

So I was shocked to hear that they save their kitchen dishwater in a bucket and then use that to flush their toilets just by dumping it in. What? How does that work?

"Well, my hippie friend explained you see the shape of that pipe? ** if you're unfamiliar with the shape you should really get up right now and go look under your kitchen sink and notice the "S"-shaped curve** Once you fill it up to the top of that curve but there's still more water rushing in, it pushes it over the top of the curve and back down, and that creates a syphon, which sucks the rest of the water and whatever else down the pipe."

"So if you go slowly the water level gets to the top of the curve and then it just trickles over the top of the curve, so it's got to have some amount of speed to it." (Another one of the guys right there said, "Have you ever taken a pee so big it flushed itself?"
:P )

I still didn't believe him, so he was like "come try it! Only the light for the upstairs bathroom is broken so we'll have to take this candle." I hope you can imagine three hippies groping the walls of the creaky upstairs trying to get to the bathroom by this little candle, and then all of us sitting on the floor in the bathroom. While Erok held the candle somewhat over the toilet I got to pour the bucket of water, which had recently been in the tub. They save their tub water for this purpose as well, and also to let the heat radiate out into the room.

Syphons, suction, and fluids are not my forte, but that just makes them all the more amazing to me. I still have a deep sense of awe for fluid dynamics.

Friday, April 11, 2008

A Meeting of the Pellet Minds: BERC, VSHI, Pellergy, and BCC

Yesterday was thoroughly exciting for a number of reasons, but I'll have to chop the reasons up into different posts I think. Let's start with the most exhilarating part.

After school I met with Jock Gill (of Biomass Commodities Corporation, who also arranged the meeting), Chris Recchia (Executive Director of Biomass Energy Resource Center aka BERC), and Andy Boutin (General Manager of Pellergy), along with my spitfire student to talk about up-and-coming pellet technologies. Also, Jock just wanted us all to meet each other cause we all cared about the same things: locally produced, locally consumed pellets.

Turns out BERC wants to get into pellet technologies. Previously if they had been, say, working with a school that was too small for to make a wood chip burner financially viable, they would refer them to another organization to look into pellets, which are much easier to scale down (and up, I might mention). But they've come around and decided that pellets should be included in the "solid fuels systems" which they support. This was very interesting for my student and I as we thought about our own school district's heating needs, and so we decided to meet up to discuss that possibility at length at a later date!

That wasn't the best part of the meeting though, that came when Andy Boutin took us to his house on East State Street to show us his working pellet-burning furnace. In case that doesn't make you take a step back, let me explain:

Right now the only thing you can commercially buy in the US for a residential-sized application to burn pellets is a pellet stove. It's like a woodstove that just heats up the air, which we then hope circulates adequately around the house. Companies in Northern Europe have developed a technology where you can just take the oil burner on your furnace and replace it with a pellet burner.

This guy, Andy Boutin, has taken the Swedish model and basically got permission to adapted it to run on our US 110Volts, 60Hz (rather than the European 230V, 50Hz). He lives in an ancient house that used to be coal-heated, so it had a whole room in the basement devoted to coal storage, which was obviously empty. He lined it, stored 7tons of pellets in it, ran a pipe from roughly the bottom of the room up, through the wall and over to a vacuum, which sucked up pellets and dropped them in a hopper that was about a cubic yard, then there was an auger which delivered pellets to a pellet burner (where the oil burner used to be).

It was SO cool. He told us all about the safety features, and how he had called the fire marshall, and the furnace manufacturer and all these other parties to make sure that his house was still insurable. But bottom line, his model works.

Next phase: he just started manufacturing five more prototypes in Maine, which will be sent to a third party testing facility to test for safety, and then he hopes to be installing them in people's homes by the end of the summer.

The system would cost roughly $4,000, with a payback period of 2-3 years. And he's planning to mass manufacture them in Maine (some folks at this meeting were hoping to get him to open a manufacturing facility in Lyndon, VT).

I would post pictures, but they're slightly confidential at this point (sorry). Even so I'm completely stoked about this!!! Andy is really stoked to work with VSHI, and I'm really stoked to have them visit Andy's house!! Gah!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Post Carbon Sustainability Network

... formerly known at the Peak Oil Network, asked my student and I to be their main presenter at their monthly potluck. What an interesting bunch - they're mostly older and highly educated. Beth went to Harvard (she wanted to know if I was related to Thomas Watson, or James Watson whom she'd had for intro to biology at Harvard). Dave taught physics at the high school ages before me. Henry helped install over 50 solar hot water heaters in the Tunbridge Valley area. There was a crew of about 14 folks in attendance, and although I couldn't answer all of their questions, I think they appreciated it and liked hearing about our work. I mean, I think I navigated those questions well enough; they were good questions, like, "How do you transport the crop to the pelletizer, on a bailer or a large truck?" Meh, idk. But even so, those are the types of questions we'll need to have looked into by a research facility, which I'm meeting about tomorrow.

Tomorrow we've got an audience with the president of the Biomass Energy Research Corporation, Adam Sherman, as well as Jock Gill, and Andy Boutin (an inventor of a pellet boiler insert to retrofit-replace the oil burner on a conventional furnace). The goal of this meeting is to generate focusing questions that a research facility could address.

Anyway, back to the Post Carbon folks, we went like 30 minutes over, which cut into the next presentation (unfortunately) from a guy from Adamant Vermont (Rick Barstow) who bought a small pelletizer and specifically wants to pelletize grass crops. This is very exciting, and I'm sure he'll be a great resource when we get things up and running.

A woman from the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund was unable to attend (but apparently she has expressed interest in meeting with us later) because they would like to throw money at a pelletizing facility. MmmMMmmm :) yummy.

... In other news, my students energy projects are going... slowly. Today one group disassembled an electric pump to get to just the motor part (which you'd think would be easy, buuuut it's not), and in the end they had to take a hack-saw to it, but they got it. Now if only we knew which pieces were really important to put it all back together as a generator. :)
And for kicks... here's a picture of my students doing some measurements of the height of the dam at the Lane Shops (today they calculated that revenue from the dam would be approximately $100,000/year ... yea!)

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Windmills and Waterwheels

Today was very exciting first period in the physics classroom ~ two groups have been building wind turbines and one group is building a water wheel, and at this point it seems like most groups have finished the construction of the blades and shafts. Now it's on to the power generation: One group is planning to hook their pinwheel up to an alternator, another is planning to wind their own Faraday's coil. So we'll see how that all turns out :/ I admit it's a little scary cause I'm not a generator expert, so we may need to call in extra supports.

It was a thrilling moment, though, when the last two groups stood in front of the box fans and the shaft turned in their hands. It was a milestone and an encouragement.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Story of the Day

Now that my National Board Portfolio has been mailed, I am DONE worrying about it! hAhAHA! (my life is so much freer now - so last night I celebrated by watching the first three episodes of Firefly, which was fairly accurately described to me as a "space western" -ha!).

So in the spirit of celebrating, here's my story of the day.

My students are working on renewable energy projects right now, and one group went to a nearby dam to take some measurements and pictures. They needed a camera, and I had mine right on hand, so I said, "here use mine. Let's check it for embarrassing pictures first though." There weren't any - unless you count pictures of Easter celebrations and bird feeders and my parents embarrassing. So off they went with my camera to the dam.

Anyway, the majority of the class was working in the computer lab, so that's where I was when that group got back. And they looked so dejected. One of the students said, "Miss Watson um... there was a sort of mishap. Well, we were holding the camera, and the strap broke and ummm... we tried to get it out of the water, but we couldn't find it."

Me: "Oh! Dang! Wow, ok. So it's in the river, eh?"

Judy the Computer Lab Lady: "Oh my goodness, maybe it will turn up after the spring thaw!"

The group: "Yea, we're super sorry. We'll pay for it."

Me: "Well, :) ok, it's ok. You know, entropy happens. It's just a thing. Keep breathing. :) "

Them: "APRIL FOOLS!!!!!" And with that they pulled out my camera, dry and whole.
Everyone in the whole room had been watching this interaction and immediately burst out laughing, myself included.

Oh man, I've never been gotten so good by an April Fool's joke. It did make me reconsider lending out my own stuff though :) hmmm...