Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Hope or Triage or Both?

For whatever reason I've been battling a sense of impending doom lately. Put a different way, I haven't been feeling much hope lately, I'm using this space to talk through it.

Maybe it's because I just watched the trailer for the new movie The Road, which has pushed my visions of "worst case scenario" a little further down the awful scale. :( I'm sure I'll get over it by tomorrow, but it makes me wonder about the triage of solutions to the pending ecological problems. It makes me want to build a Living Machine in my garage and take a course from the Roots School about wilderness survival, or go to Doe Camp this summer and learn how to handle a gun or a bow & arrow.

I've been wanting to know how to do these things for a long time anyway. It makes me uncomfortable to think that I couldn't survive in the woods on my own.

It also makes me want to go test the water in the stream by my parents' place for contaminants. There's always some funky soapy foam build up in it, and not only do I not know where it comes from, but I don't know what it is, and I wonder if it would be fixed with a simple water filter (the kind that employes layers of sand, and charcoal). I mean, probably not, but if not, why not? And how do you fix it? I know UVM will test your soil for something like $15 and give you a full report on all the heavy metals and composition they find in it. I wonder if there's something similarly available for water. There must be. Sometimes I wish I had more of a biological or chemical background to know how to even begin to know who would do this work.

So my solution to this frustration is to plan action and to learn.

But I'm reminded too of the advice from Jesus (from Matthew 6:25) "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?" But how are we supposed to do that? I guess the reality is that all this planning for some imaginary worst case scenario does feel a little weird.

But that's not the point, abandoning well-advised plans for the sake of "not worrying" doesn't really help us. But instead, maybe it's like what my parents told me when I was nervous for finals: Do your best, and then leave the rest up to God. You can't do a thing about it past trying your best, so there's no point in worrying. It only steals joy from the present.

But then, are my plans well-advised?

Is this the cycle I could so easily get caught in. Is this the best I can do? Is there something more or different I should be doing? This is the part where I have to let go. This is the part where faith helps me live better; where trust in God would help me keep my head and my wits about me (which will ultimately help in any bad situations anyway). As I already know, people (like myself) who are panicked or afraid make poor decisions.

So I guess this post also comes with a prayer for deeper trust in God, for rest and deep breathing after all the planning has been done. The more connected I am to the Source, the better for everyone. :P :)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bible verses on Ecology

So I had a somewhat discouraging conversation with a friend about Christian ecology (in that I responded in a way that could have used a much larger helping of love than I showed), but on the plus side a few folks chimed in the facebook post with some helpful references, which I thought would be worth sharing here. So here's hoping that this is useful! :)

2 Chronicles 7:13-14
When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

2 Chronicles 36:20-21
He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his sons until the kingdom of Persia came to power. The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah.

Genesis 6:19
You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you.

Genesis 2:15
The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

Leviticus 18:26-28
But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the aliens living among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out, as it vomited out the nations that were before you.

Leviticus 25:2
'Speak to the Israelites and say to them: "When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the LORD."

Numbers 35:33-34
'Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it. Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the LORD, dwell among the Israelites.'

Isaiah 5:8-10
Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
til no space is left
and you live alone on the land.

The LORD Almighty has declared in my hearing:
"Surely the great houses will become desolate,
the fine mansions left without occupants.

A ten-acre vineyard will produce only a bath of wine,
a homer of seed only an ephah of grain."

Jeremiah 3:2-3
Look up to the barren heights and see.
Is there any place where you have not been ravished?
By the roadside you sat waiting for lovers,
sat like a nomad in the desert.
You have defiled the land
with your prostitution and wickedness.

Therefore the showers have been withheld,
and no spring rains have fallen.
Yet you have the brazen look of a prostitute;
you refuse to blush with shame.

Hope this is helpful!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Vshi installations in Montpelier!

So we had our first two pellet stove installations last week through the vt sustainable heating initiative- super exciting! It's great to see thos work come to fruition and hear the feedback from the recipients. Simply put, they're thrilled and eager to help give back to their community and vshi. Sweet.

And now for lessons learned:
Don't work with vt stove & flag works, they're not nice.
When doing a site visit make sure to check for grounded outlets and floor pitch - leveling takes a little while.
$2000 / installation is probably too low.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Church Garden Best Practices

So after a fairly successful summer, the church garden has now been sufficiently harvested that it would be difficult to get amounts of anything worthy of preservation. So last Sunday we opened the space to gleaning (there were some amounts of basil, dill, and stray tomatoes, fennel, and some bolting greens).

At first when we would get a harvest of lettuces that really couldn't be preserved I conceded that we ought to give them away a little begrudgingly, but after I gave away summer squash, cabbage, lettuce, and tomatoes at church, I was hooked. I suppose I liked giving food away to the food shelf well enough, which desperately needs fresh produce, but I LOVED giving food away at church. It was so satisfying to go up to the fringe folks who were sticking around and say "hey, would you like some potatoes?" Then they would take them, and leave happy, and if the few data points I have are indicative a trend (and I'll have a few more data points after this coming Sunday), then the folks who have received food as a gift from the garden have a 100% return rate. Hm. :)

As I think about what we would plant for next year, I'm drawn towards thinking about the things which preserved well, were relatively easy to harvest, or which lent themselves to recipes that people knew (e.g. Who knows what the heck to do with fennel bulb?).

The veggies which excelled against these criteria were:
potatoes - they keep so well
carrots - keep well, and we made an awesome soup and made for awesome church-time snacks
plum tomatoes - SO much sauce!
basil - who doesn't love pesto? (only i might make it with some other nut besides pine nuts, cause, well, you can and pine nuts are like THE most expensive nut at the coop).
onions - again keep well, easy to harvest
squash - wow, so prolific, easy to give away, easy to shred and freeze
kale - blanch & freeze in bags
green beans - good thing my mom has a pressure cooker, so we canned a whole bunch of beans
celery - good in the carrot soup

Veggies which I would probably not do next year:
cherry tomatoes - so labor intensive
dill - I don't think we ever harvested this
fennel - what do you do with fennel?
parsley - unless i grew it specifically for companion planting, we didn't harvest it like at all

Somewhere in the middle:
big tomatoes - sure they're big, but I don't think they produced the volume of the plums/juliets

Other things I would do differently:
trellises - basically our trellises sucked. They almost all fell over
string - I think we tied up the tomatoes with like some throw-away string from the ReStore, and it got all stretched out and ineffectual. Next year I'll invest in some twine.
logging the harvest - We were pretty good about recording what went in, but not so good about recording how much was taken out, so we have no real sense of the value added from this project.

Running a church garden has been really good, I'm glad we had people sign up for particular weeks to take care of it so the burden was more spread out. *whew*
Even so I'm not entirely sure if I'll be doing it again next year. We'll see.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Honesty and Humility

So it's 4:30pm on a Friday and I've decided that grading papers is still my priority to lighten my load for next week. You would think that would be a gritty, unsatisfying decision, but among the stack there came one paper which caught me completely by surprise, and made my extra time entirely worthwhile.

For obvious reasons I can't disclose anything about the student, but I can describe the assignment. It was a graphing practice. It provided several sets of data with the task of determining the function that best described it based on a handful of functions I set out earlier in class. One of the six data sets was a little sneaky: it didn't completely conform to any of the functions I had described. I planned to give full credit for a "quadratic" solution, as that was the closest match that I had provided. But this student came up with the actual solution: that it was y=kx^(1.5). And then he wrote a paragraph about this problem as follows (I don't think it's illegal to share this - besides I was delighted to have read it):

"The graph of data set ____ looks like a parabola or a straight line. I also though that I might have made a mistake drawing it and that it was a square-root. None of these worked, so I asked my father for help. We determined that it followed the equation y=kx^(1.5). Although I worked hard on this problem, the solution is not mine."

Here's what I wrote on his paper:
"Indeed it is also Kepler's solution to the relationship between the orbital radius and period of the planets, more commonly seen as radius^3=period^2, which gives period=radius^(3/2). Your honesty and humility are truly remarkable. Thank you :) "

I will probably be glowing about this kid all weekend.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Soooo... now what? Transitioning into the curriculum

This the part of the year where I pause a little bit and wonder how the heck do I start the real stuff? I'm perpetually tempted to solicit from students even the most mundane of details, just to prove to myself that they are thinking. But the kinds of questions I'm prone to asking during lecture could be most accurately described as "fill in the blank" for which the context makes it painfully clear what the answer should be: This is not critical thinking.

Today I had a brainwave and since I didn't have a class until half way through the day I had time to make it happen, much to my relief. After setting up the concept chart and supplying them with details about position, displacement, and time, it was time to start thinking about velocity... since there's really not a whole lot you can do with those fundamental measurements (besides perhaps discussing their origins, the nature of the smallest increment, and personal applications, e.g. the length of one's stride or the time it takes to start & stop a timer).

So on to velocity we plowed, and here were the questions I posed in a ppt slide with instructions to work on the questions in groups:
1) What is speed in terms of the items on your concept chart?
2) In what units do we measure speed, and what do those units tell us about what speed is composed of?
3) Write an equation for speed based on your answer to the above.
4) Is this equation always true? When is it not? What are its limitations?

As far as I can tell all the groups came to the correct conclusions, but now I'd like to know which question was most helpful for the creation of the equation which they created?

I'm inspired to ask such a question because of my recent reading of The Teaching Gap, which describes (among other very interesting things) the value Japanese school place on multiple methods. They don't require that all students use the same method to solve a problem, but observe, rather, that statistically speaking certain percentages of students will be prone to solving a problem through a handful of methods. So, of course, I'm very curious to see the distribution of methods the students used to come up with the equation... or perhaps since they worked in groups, I'll have to frame it more like, "Which question helped you personally understand what the equation ought to be?"

Update on the Women in Engineering: We're about to start our first project, so I'll see if I can put together a post-survey regarding their enthusiasm. I'll let you know what I find. :)

Friday, August 28, 2009

What do you do on the First Day of Physics?

So I'm in the midst of the first day, and since I have no papers to grade or meetings to attend I'm free to reflect a little bit on this beginning.

Historically Experimental Physics has been the hardest of my classes to teach, and this year it's second period, but so far there's an extraordinarily excellent vibe in that class. I mean, I know it's only been one day, but I think the first day is pretty telling about the rest of the year.

So what do you do on the first day of school?

3 things:
Get some information about the kids, their interests, and their folks' contact
Go through preliminary stuff... Syllabus, Safety Contract, the Wiki Contract
Do an Agree/Disagree activity.

This is where we set up a continuum in the room from strongly agree down to strongly disagree, and then put out statements like:
Science is fun.
Scientific progress is good.
One theory is better than another if it explains more phenomena.
The universe is infinitely complex.

I really like it when we get to examine some of the ideas the lay unspoken at the heart of science. Wouldn't it be great if we reverted back to calling science "natural philosophy"? hehehe

So far so good!

Monday, August 10, 2009

VSHI in Montpelier

Since the Governor's Institute for Engineering I've found at least two other students who were interested in joining me in VSHI work in Montpelier. This is exciting since it's only been one other student and I representing our capitol so far.

This original student and I worked with the head of LIHEAP, Richard Moffi, to send out an interest survey to Montpelier LIHEAP clients, and have since received back several surveys for strong candidates to receive a pellet stove from the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative.

So far I've been on three site visits in Montpelier, some were stronger candidates than others, but man, we've got a bunch more to follow up with before we can make any decisions. After having met some of these families I can see that it's going to be ridiculously hard to turn people down. Oh my gosh - I think I may have caught the bug. All I want to do is help these people.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Transition Vermont

Although it may not seem like it, my lack of posting does not correlate with a lack of events worthy of blogging about, but rather it's more indicative of my lack of regular internet. Or perhaps it's more indicative of my laptop's failing airport card. (I must remember to get that fixed!)

Anyway, the item worth breaking my blogging fast for today is a website called Transition Vermont, which looks to be a collaboration of all my favorite Peak Oil and Sustainability groups, of course involving Carl Etnier, who has done more for sustainability in Vermont than almost anyone else I can think of.

It looks like a great resource, with a rich calendar of events and forums. (I hope to make it to the bee keeping class on the 15th!)

Monday, June 29, 2009

Women in Engineering

While at the Governor's Institute of Vermont (Engineering), one of the directors posed a question during a session: "Why is there such a disparity between the number of men and the number of women who go into engineering?" Silent in the back, the standard answers ran in sequence through my head. Women feel they must choose between career and family, women are not encouraged to "tinker" as children... but these answers have felt (and continue to feel) insufficient, and then a new thought crept in.

Earlier in the week we went over the different types of engineering. During this discussion someone told the joke, "what's the difference between mechanical engineering and civil engineering?... Civil Engineers make targets, and Mechanical Engineers make bombs." In a way, it's pretty funny, on another level it's just really awful.

In that moment talking about women engineering, I thought of this joke, and then I thought about the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative and how more than half the group is comprised of women. Just the night before Courtney, one of the VSHI kids, spoke to the group about how doing this work helped give her life meaning, that the significance of helping people kept her motivated. So here's the thought.

At engineering camp presenters say things like "Who here likes to blow things up!?" which of course draws huge applause. But, truth be told, I don't like blowing things up. If I were to guess, I bet there are a lot of women who would agree.

Perhaps one of the barriers to gender equity in engineering is the "bomb culture" billboarded by lots of the rock stars and role models of engineering. If the main motivation for students studying aerospace is "I like to shoot stuff", that may not be sufficient for the average woman.

Instead, I would suggest encouraging a culture of altruism. Build relationships, solve community problems, help your family - through engineering!

Many of the projects I do excite the men more than the women (I can only speak anecdotally here) such as tennis ball launchers, rockets. But I can only think of a couple projects where the women show just as much or more enthusiasm as the men. These are the house-wiring project, in which students construct parallel and series circuitry in a cardboard doll house they also assemble, and bridge building.

Something I'd like to try next year (if I can think of it), I'd like to survey my students after every project to see how into it they were, and see if there is a discrepancy between male and female enthusiasm or interest. ... now I'll just need to remember this post in 2 months. :P :)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Welcome to the Fifth Grade...

... where "he said/she said" dominates the fragile social culture.

I hesitate to blog about this as people from Montpelier might actually read this, but I think I can keep it anonymous enough to be benign.

Lately there's been some drama among the faculty at school. It's a little awkward to talk about. Frankly, I was oblivious to it at first, but some folks seem pretty upset by it. At our last faculty meeting of the year I definitely got drawn into it, making comments I shouldn't have.

Usually my attitude around faculty meetings is to just not care. If I don't care, then I can't be upset by it. This has been a good method of survival in a system that seems to uniformly makes people bitter, vindictive, and jaded. I've blogged before (I believe) about the need for vigilance against such tendencies, and a red flag went up over my behavior during the last meeting.

The administration during my student teaching experience had a contentious relationship with the faculty, but I'm thankful to report that the administration here has dealt with recent drama as graciously as I can imagine. Now, if only we could figure out how to give each other grace. As a fan of direct communication I am tempted to confront offending teachers and say, "you know when you talk like that you really hurt people", but seeing as it's the end of the year I'm afraid the opportunity has been lost.

So the only solution, then, is to forgive people regardless of where they're at, and start fresh and humbly with a new season next year. And, I might add, I need to not participate in the trashing of other people - for trashing other people.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Modern Physics and the End of the Year

Exam week is so delightful.  I'm not wholly sure the kids would agree, but it sure is cake for me. I've just got to grade and get ready for graduation rehearsal on Wednesday. Oh right, so I'm the senior class advisor this year, which (thus far) has been good on all counts. Even when the seniors pulled their final prank (silly string at the end of the awards ceremony) they had a strong enough collective conscience that they picked it all up when it was over (yay!). 

But before I get too far away from the end of the year, I want to pause a bit and reflect on my favorite unit of the year: topics in modern physics. During this unit I start with a series of 4 lectures because... well... everyone needs to have at least a few foundational pieces in place before they can go forward. These include: Special Relativity, Young's Double Slit Experiment, An Electron in a Box, and Entanglement. From there the kids are assigned certain topics to research and report back to the class on their findings. These topics include: 
Black Holes, Wormholes, and Hawking Radiation
General Relativity and the curvature of space time
Fractals, Chaos Theory, and Conway's Game of Life 
String Theories, M-Theory and other Theories of Everything
Supersymmetry and the subatomic zoo
Godel's Incompleteness Theorem 
AI and the physics of consciousness
Quantum Computing

I think there's more, but that's the short list. Anyway, I frequently feel hesitant to teach this stuff because well... it might be different in 5 years, and who knows if it's even real? Well, the response I got from the kids was remarkably positive. They said it was "the most interesting unit all semester" and that it ought to be longer next year. Interesting. It's last in the semester for a reason, namely as a preventative measure for senioritis. So it has the unfortunate fate of having whatever time it can be afforded before the end of the year and no more, really. But I suppose that's an appropriate fate for a topic whose validity depends on every successive issue of Scientific American. 

Thursday, May 21, 2009

National Board Certification Re-takes

Last Monday I retook two sections of my National Board Certification exam. And I think I did really well. Yay!

I retook the sections about Breadth of Knowledge and Connections in Science. In case you're in a similar position, here's what I did.

Some National Board Certified science teachers recommended that I read Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. It's wicked long and mostly focused on biological subjects, but it certainly felt thorough. I learned tons and felt like that was pretty decent studying. Another book that was recommended but didn't have time to read was Science Matters by James Trefil. Bill Bryson's book took me like three months to complete, but ironically some of the best studying I did was within 24hrs of the test.

I found a short list of "major themes" in science and then attempted to relate each of these themes to the three sciences I don't teach: bio, chem, and earth sci. Just this mental exercise helped immensely as some of the connections I thought of turned out to be exact questions on the test. So there we are. *whew*

Next November will tell if I was right!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Montpelier Public Wi-Fi

What if Montpelier provided free wireless access to the entire city? That'd be sweet, right? NYC can do it, why not us?

Well, if my memory serves me correctly, we already voted on it on town meeting day and gave approval for someone to go ahead and do it. My understanding is that there wasn't money set aside for the project, but that basically we gave them permission to include it in our taxes.

Only thing is, no one's done it yet.

Is this an opportunity for some highly geeky physics? This could be a super sweet project for a bunch of geeky kids to take on.
Where do you put wireless routers?
What signal strength would be needed, or what is the radius of each router?
Are there places that lend themselves more easily to router placements than others?
How much with this cost? and the biggie:
How much backlash will we get from Comcast?

What if it was a municipally own/regulated utility like water or electricity? It's like extending the library into people's homes.

Now we've just got to make sure that we're not inadvertently destroy bee populations with wireless devices, and maybe sort through the censorship issues raised by state-sponsored internet transfers of porn. Hmmm... this is sounding messier.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Future of Food: Monsanto vs. the Common Man

I just watched The Future of Food on hulu and wow am I fired up! It has given me a clearer perspective on Monsanto and genetically modified anythings. I will leave it to the documentary to explain the horrifying details, but I need to clear my head a little bit, because I'm not sure I'll be able to function as a human being if I don't.

The movie seemed to highlight some broken aspects of our society.
1) The US patent system especially in regards to genes and plants.
2) The incestuous relationship between the government and big business, in this case Monsanto. No new laws would be passed to hinder Monsanto because all the politicians in the cabinet either worked for or were largely funded by Monsanto.

Wikipedia has a quick list of things Monsanto has been involved with over the last 100 years, as well as a list of board members and employees who are or have held political office. (Some of this might sound surprising, but I assure you there were no "flags" on this Wikipedia entry):
The Manhattan Project
Agent Orange
Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) and rBGH
styrofoam manufacturing

And then there's all the farming havoc they've caused. I know understand Monsanto to be a bully. Perhaps one of the biggest bullies in the modern world.

So how do you stop a bully? Their legal record is incredible. They have threatened states with law suits if their products are banned. They sue small farmers who are found to have plants with their genetic coding even if the farmers did nothing malicious at all!

University of Vermont has long been involved with Monsanto, as they have funded research into BGH and rBGH. What if UVM turned them down?

What if we were somehow able to change the patent laws about plants and genes. The laws are simply unjust, but I don't know that anyone has been able to articulate exactly why they are "insane", as a farmer from the documentary described.

I don't feel much better. The patent thing is still irking me. I need to do more thinking and research.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Leadership as a Newbie Teacher

I just got back from Denver, where the 2004 Knowles Science Teaching Fellows had their (sniff) last meeting with just each other. It's been five years that we've gone to these meetings together and we've seen each other go through pre-service, to student teaching, to first year, and for some of us up to our fifth year of teaching. There have been tears of exasperation, many epiphanies, and lots of laughter. We've learned about effective physics and chemistry curricula, inquiry, differentiated instruction, and assessment. So what else is there to learn? We're all becoming quite confident in our own classrooms, so where do you go from here?

Our last meeting with Steve D'Angelis from Maine was focused on Personal Learning Communities (like the DuFour model), and I think I'm the only one from the group currently leading a PLC group at my school. This is mainly because I found out the school was already going to adopt this as a project and they were looking for leaders. As we talked about how to start PLCs at our schools (mainly without administrative support), something really interesting came out: many of us had major mental blocks to the idea of being leaders at our schools.

Some people were just straight up afraid; others didn't want to be the person "telling other people what to do"; still others didn't want to step on anybody's toes. I couldn't say for sure, but I think when this came out Steve changed the agenda for the rest of the weekend. He asked questions like, "What does it mean to be a leader?" and "Do you want to be a leader?" and "How do you picture yourself as a leader in your school? Best case scenario?"

I'm still reflecting on these questions. What makes it difficult for new teachers to become leaders at their schools? There are probably a hundred reasons, but it makes me think about one particular dynamic. Many of us teachers have heard the phrase "we tried that years ago and it didn't work." It demonstrates to me the common faculty dynamic where the jaded lead the new. Perhaps it's related to the teacher's union where age amounts to seniority, and therefore leadership.

Here's my point:
If your most cynical and unimaginative teachers are the ones leading the way, one can only assume the school is destined for mediocrity.

I don't think it's fair to say though that all older teachers are jaded, however. In fact, I would replace cynicism with wisdom in a more idealistic teaching community. And that really should be heeded.

So what shall I conclude? There should be a balance between these two forces: wisdom and imagination, in order to avoid their dopplegangers cynicism and folly, respectively.

(I am, of course, speaking very stereotypically here. So I feel the need to acknowledge that it is certainly possible to have older teachers with imagination and creativity, and younger teachers with a lot of wisdom or cynicism for that matter).

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Situation Prediction Reality Explanation

Lately I've been employing a strategy I learned from a Knowles Fellow. It's a cycle of experimentation where: 

I pose a situation 
Students predict something 
I ask them to vote for their prediction 
We try it, and they write down the reality 
They write an explanation for what they saw. 

This cycle has been highly successful and the students really like it. I have them create a chart which follows those steps: 
Situation - Prediction - Reality - Explanation 
So far I've used this to examine the motion of marbles on ramps, pendulums, bulbs in series and parallel circuits. 

I'm tempted to write about this for an article in some science teaching journal, (my fellowship with KSTF would probably support such an endeavor... maybe I should do it.)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Church Garden Update: Rock Point!

St. Andrew's finally settled on a location for the new summer project: the church farm/garden. It will be at Rock Point in Burlington (it's behind Burlington High School) which is also near the Bishop Booth Conference Center. This looks to be an excellent match as it fits everything we hope for in the future: multiple biomes, a facility that can host a lot of people if we have a conference, proximity to the Old North End, etc. Wow, that was perfect.

So far the response to this project in general has been polarizing. I heard from one girl after we presented the idea at church, "So I thought I was supposed to move once I graduated in May, but now I know I'm not supposed to." Sweet. This is the most extreme comment I received but other people are similarly excited.

On the flip side some peoples' response has been more like "I don't get it" followed by general disgruntlement. Which is fine - I don't necessarily expect everyone to jump on board all at once or ever. Who knows, maybe it will flop, or maybe it will be freaking amazing.

I think I need to visualize freaking amazing, so that we can better get there....

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Organic Garden at the White House

I found this post about the Obama's planting an organic garden at the White House encouraging. 
Lots of great pictures ~ 
Yum Yum :) 

Think Outside the Bottle Taste Test

So last week my students involved with Think Outside the Bottle volunteered to participate in an event this coming Monday (tomorrow) at the state house. Originally there were going to be a couple speakers, but when we volunteered to do the taste test they agreed that we ought to be the main event. Gah! 

That's exciting, but - moment of honesty - it's a little scary. There will be a bunch of press folks there. (I thought I was done with media for the year, but apparently not). So here we go. It's exactly during class time, it's definitely all about sustainability and conservation of matter and energy, and it's something the kids are completely pumped about, so I'm willing to go with it. 

Hopefully I don't make a fool of myself or the kids in the process. 

Monday, March 16, 2009

Supply Side Jesus Cartoon

As long as I've got a slightly political bend lately, I may as well throw this reference out there: 
Supply Side Jesus is a cartoon that explores how Jesus' ministry would have been different if he had been, well... more politically "right". 

It does use some unfortunate strawman tactics, but nonetheless I think it does raise some interesting points. Worth considering. 

Professional Learning Communities: Outside the Norms

All my DuFour PLC training tells me that we're not doing what PLCs are meant to do. Theoretically we're supposed to be designing common assessments, testing students, analyzing the data, and then using the data to change our practice.  Then the cycle starts over again. 

But no, that's not what we've been doing. Instead I love what we're doing a LOT more. hahaha! 

Our big thing as a department is that we want to know what each other teaches. So we chose a topic which we felt like reached into every course, chemical bonds and atomic structure, and we've given brief glimpses about how we teach that topic. It's been highly interesting and engaging. We are learning more about each other, about science, and also making our curricula more cohesive as we use the same vocabulary. 

So it may not be strictly what we "should" be doing, but hey, I like it. I'm learning, the department is learning. I'll count that a success, even if it doesn't fit the formula. 

Well, we've now come to roughly the end of chemical bonds/atomic structure, and we'll be moving on this coming Wednesday with a new ubiquitous topic: Nature of Science. To start us off is the Earth Science teacher who would apparently appreciate feedback about a particular lesson he always gives to students. Should be interesting! 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Why I am not a Conservative

I realize this may not fall ostensibly under any of the categories I purport to blog about here (Education, Physics, Sustainability, and Faith), but I feel like it does fit in the context of Sustainability, so hang in there with me. 

The other day there was this 14 year old "conservative prodigy" on the Fox News channel, who boiled down what it meant to be a Conservative into 4 principles: 
1) Respect for the Constitution 
2) Respect for Life 
3) Reducing the size of government
4) Personal Responsibility 

This was fabulously put, because on many of these counts I whole heartedly agree. The issue I had was with the Reduction of the size of the government, and in addition, I don't think Conservatives are really about #4, Personal Responsibility. Let me explain:

I would certainly love to live in a world in which people could govern themselves, and I think as a general educated, moderately moral civilization, we haven't done poorly at that... or perhaps that's just easy to say from my position, in the safest state in the country. But in any case, I don't think it's proper to reduce the size or role of government if there is corruption that needs checking. 

I was just reading a review of a Joel Bakan's book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, which basically contends that Corporations, whose only agenda is to pursue money, bears all the insensitivity and moral character of a deranged person. If corporations are truly to have "personhood" in the legal sense, then the company's "mental health" must be assessed as well, and for many Inc.'s the diagnosis would be "pathological".  We have a broken business system, this is why I associate Big Business with Conservativism, because Big Business would like deregulation, lifting of moral and ethical obligations, and Conservatives, who would like to see government reduced, would give it to them. 

If Conservatives were really about Personal Responsibility, then they would hold businesses with corporate "personhood" accountable and this means more regulation, not less. 

But there's a second reason why I don't think Personal Responsibility is really on the Conservative agenda. 

Because of the nature of businesses to make a profit at the cost of its laborers (through cutting health benefits, livable wages, safe working conditions) as well as their tendency to pollute as much as is legal (or more), some people will wind up being poorer than others. This may be seen as the fault of the business, as my previous statements would imply, but ultimately businesses are made up of people, and in the end people are responsible for keeping other people in poverty. 

So who is to help out the folks who wind up as "less fortunate" than others? We may say that this is where the church comes in. It's the church's job to take care of people in poverty. Sure. Yes. However, what the church can provide is simply not enough to make up for what corruption has stolen from people in poverty. We ought to be thanking the government for taking forcibly from us what we should have given voluntarily to our neighbor. We may disagree about the functionality of the welfare system, but in the end everyone is looking for better solutions than welfare, and hopefully we will find some. Perhaps Neighborkeepers is one of these solutions, but in the meantime I think it's entirely justifiable to say that our society is better for taking care of its poorest members.  I think if Conservatives were really in favor of Personal Responsibility, there would be more support for government programs safeguarding financial and racial equity, and workers rights. 

To be fair, I don't consider myself Liberal either, and perhaps if I feel so moved I'll run a critique of Liberal ideology next. 

Monday, March 9, 2009

Church Farm Update & Sustainability at St. Andrew's

As usual, I have lots to update about, but because of recent comments (yay!) :) I'll bend this post towards the relevant topic: Where is St. Andrew's at with our efforts to be and advocate for sustainability. 

There's lots on the bill for this summer.

Awesome thing #1: Canoe trip down the Penobscot river, learning about the environment, ending with a stay with the Penobscot tribe and learning about how the land and Western civilization impacts them. As far as I know lots of people are interested in this.

Awesome thing #2: We just started reading Wendell Berry in our Discussion Group, which (of course) has sparked lots of fascinating conversation. 

Awesome thing #3 (and this one is my baby) hehehehe: We're hoping to partner with another local church - specifically North Avenue Alliance Church, which has land, to start a "church farm".  
This is a major part of our vision for the future of our church. We're finding that our big thing is helping to fix broken systems in our community, and one of those systems is food and cycles of poverty, and so... let's address them both and start a farm! 

We went back and forth about the models for making this work: 
Do we do family-sized plots and let people be responsible for their own square of earth? or do we let the whole space be planned by people who know how to do agriculture and then get volunteers to dig in the dirt on "volunteer days". I think it will be the latter. Hopefully we'll get connected with NeighborKeepers to involve people in poverty. Then the food will go towards the people who helped (they'll get paid according to the hours they spend perhaps?), cooking classes, and canning classes. I also hope we get to include some seed-saving classes. 

Or... perhaps in order to not duplicate what's already happening in our community, we might collaborate with a group like Burlington Community Gardens, or Permaculture Burlington.  

So now, I've just got to finish the proposal and get it to North Ave's elder board before the 3rd Monday of the month(!). 

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Vermont Energy Education Program

So the Vermont Energy Education Program came to my classroom on Friday and gave a presentation called Energy Efficiency. My friend Seth, who plays a mean game of ultimate, was the representative presenting to my classes, and I think it went really well. 

Here are some things I learned: 
  • 16oz. of Uranium (enough to fill a normal water bottle) is enough "fuel" to supply the average American household with enough electricity to last 50 years! 
  • The first battery (known to Western culture) was invented in 1799. 
  • In 1820, Mr. Orstead was demonstrating his battery to friends at a party when he noticed that the a compass sitting nearby on the table reacted every time he connected or disconnected the leads of his battery.  Gosh I love accidental discoveries! ha!

From this demo I'm feeling a little inspired to build a couple pieces of equipment: 
  • An ammeter connected to a coil of wire on a hollow cylinder, and then get a cow magnet to drop through it. As long as the ammeter has a precise enough sensitivity it should demonstrate a changing magnetic field generating electricity. 
  • A spinning wheel connected to a stout magnet, which would spin near two coils of wire. Seth had one that lit up some LEDs. Perhaps I should ask him about this before I jump into making one. 
I think the kids appreciated the mix of toys to play with (hand-crank generators, shake-powered flashlights, etc.) and overheads and discussion questions. I could definitely see inviting him back next year. 


Monday, March 2, 2009

Renewable Energy Projects

As my vacation winds down, I think increasingly about the classes I'll jump back into on Wednesday. When I left them we were two days into talking about renewable energy projects. I offered a menu of project ideas, plus an opening for students to come up with their own. So far, though, the feedback has been "Can we do all of these?!" I am seriously tempted to cancel the rest of the semester's curriculum to do that, but I also feel like people may get sick of these projects. Anyway, here's the menu of projects listed from simplest and most doable to most difficult to implement (roughly). Any suggestions are welcome as well. 

  • Light Loggers - Donald, my intern, and I placed light loggers in a few rooms around the school which recorded when there was motion in a room and when the lights were on. The goal would be to see *how* worthwhile it would be to install motion-sensors on the lights. 
  • DDC Boiler Control - The boiler room is controlled by a Digital Display Controller (DDC).  We could monitor the temperatures in each room in the whole school and see which rooms are perpetually too cold, and which are too hot.  That would ultimately lead us to going over some of the duct joints with aluminum tape to prevent leaks. We could even then see if it made any measurable difference. 
  • Solar Hot Water Panel - Turns out the cafeteria's hot water comes from an electric hot water tank located under the cafeteria. We could run a calculation to see *how* worthwhile it would be to install a solar hot water panel above the cafeteria.  As I'm told solar hot water has a higher return on investment than photovoltaics. If our conclusions showed that it would be of significant value, then, we could propose this to principal, head custodian, head of facilities. Our high school recently won $10,000 from AARP for being awesome at sustainability (mainly because of our greenhouse, and the biology curriculum's dedication to growing food for the cafeteria there). That money isn't earmarked for anything, and in keeping with the spirit with which we won it, this may be an entirely appropriate use of it. But we'll see. 
  • Operation Plastic Removal, Think Outside the Bottle, Plastic Bag Fee Statewide or Countywide - In the fall my 7th period physics students were moved to spread the word about BPA in water bottles like Nalgene. They formed a group they ended up calling Operation Plastic Removal. The wrote a mission statement, made a facebook group, made a video, and a tee-shirt design, which many students are excited to purchase. Its sort of taken on a life of its own. For a while I squelched it because we had to move on in the curriculum, but now that we're back to renewable energy, it's now appropriate to return I believe. There are many directions we could take this. 
1) We could work with Think Outside the Bottle, who has recently had a campaign to get municipal facilities to cancel their agreements with bottled water companies. According to a rumor I heard a representative from Think Outside the Bottle was going to target Vermont's Statehouse next. 

2) Students from Mount Abe in Bristol are pushing for a statewide plastic bag fee. A version of such a bill has been introduced in both the house and senate, but according to an environmental lobbyist friend of mine, she says that no one is talking about it. Sad face. However, (hehehehe) it sounds like the Central Vermont Solid Waste District was eager for ideas at their most recent board meeting.  They have a zero-waste policy which helps guide their decisions, and this would fall right in line with that.  It looks like there might be a good opportunity here. It would be easier to go to a statewide fee or ban after it had been piloted at the county level. 

3) There is a bill with Natural Resources and Energy Committee that would ban DECA (a particularly toxic flame retardant) as well as BPA in baby-bottles and in the lining of baby food containers. According to my friend people *are* talking about this bill and it's likely to pass. Nonetheless, I think the kids would be thrilled to go there and be a part of the discussion.  

  • Pellet Stoves for Low Income Families in Washington County - I've been working with a group of students and teachers calling themselves the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative whose main goal has been to reduce the amount of fossil fuels burned as heating fuel in Vermont, and their specific action to do this has been to raise money to switch LIHEAP recipients (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) from kerosene, propane, and fuel oil to pellet heat systems. Pellets are cheaper and (in my opinion) will continue to track lower than fuel oil per BTU, so people with capital to make a switch will do that, but those without capital will have to continue burning the more expensive fuel oil.  And if sustainability is to become our reality it must be accessible to the poorest in our community.  So this group has raised money to switch LIHEAP recipients in Addison County, but why couldn't we do the same in Washington County? Many students wanted to do this. 

  • Wind Energy on State Owned Land and/or ski resorts - Vermont Representative, Rachel Weston is sitting on a bill that would open up state land for renewable energy development. Primarily this would mean people could put wind turbines on ridge lines - there would be special exceptions for particularly well-known vistas, and all the regular rules would apply: not in a migration area, not interrupting endangered species habitat, etc. A friend of mine came up with an interesting amendment to this bill - what if there were wind turbines at ski resorts - they're already (in my view) ecological disaster areas, visually unnatural, they're easily accessible, and ski resorts could get a little green-washing to boot!  Ok... probably I shouldn't frame it that way if we move forward with this, but you get the idea. :) 

Wow. That was a lot of writing. I hope you can see why the kids are excited about this. I'm excited as well ~ we'll see what can be achieved in the next few months.  

Friday, February 27, 2009

Vermont Community Energy Mobilization Project and a Recap

My gosh it's been a lot time since I posted anything here - over a month, in fact. 

I'll admit, part of my absence has been due to the new filtering system at the school combined with a shoddy internet connection at home, in addition to my own lack of motivation to post.  Which is not to say that there hasn't been anything interesting going on. So let's recap the last month or so. 
  • In my classes we did egg bungee jumping - the goal is to get the egg as close to the ground as possible without breaking (pictured above). 
  • My intern is two days into his soloing period with my largest class. 
  • I'm agreed to work with the Vermont Community Energy Mobilization (VCEM) project with my students (more on that later). 
  • I'm working with the Vermont Energy Education Program (VEEP) to do some school energy auditing 
  • We had the Governor's Institute of Vermont Winter Weekend again. 
  • And now we're on break until next Wednesday (yay!) 
I think my body knows that it's vacation and plans to get sick then on purpose, which is fine with me ~ I'd rather be sick now than have to take time off from school. 

So the Vermont Community Energy Mobilization (VCEM) is a program put on by Efficiency Vermont where volunteers get trained (3 hrs worth) and then at a later date, like some Saturday, all the volunteers meet at some central location, Efficiency Vermont gives them a ton of materials and some housing assignments (they know you're coming), and off you go. You actually go to people's houses and install 
  • up to 5 CFLs per house 
  • a programmable thermostat
  • insulation for electric hot water heaters 
  • 6' of pipe insulation for hot water pipes  
  • low-flow shower heads and faucet attachments, etc. 
  • In addition, volunteers collect information about the house's foundation, attic insulation, refrigerator, as well as family's willingness to receive a call from Efficiency Vermont about those items. 
So the idea is to get students involved. Teams composed of 2 students (minimum) and 1 adult (minimum) could go do this work in people's homes. I've scheduled the training to take place during school hrs, but the volunteer days will almost certainly be on a Saturday, so how do I get students to show up on a Saturday? Offer it as an alternative to the Final Exam. Yep. This plus a write up about how much energy they saved and what it was like for them and BOOM! Done. Final is over. I had so many kids volunteering. This is going to be great.