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.