Saturday, February 12, 2011

Students Start an Organization for Art about VY at GIV Winter Weekend

I'm here at the Governor's Institute Winter Weekend with 74 highly-motivated students from all over Vermont. I'm working with the Engineering strand, most of which is currently building rocket stoves, and a small handful of which is working creating a website for people to post art related to Vermont Yankee.

Now I've never built rocket stoves with my students, but I'm tempted to do so this year in conjunction with our study of energy. The trouble is that most of the students have covered the topic in chemistry (which is not to say that they remember it). It would be a way for us to get some hands-in experience with efficiency and biochar. I'm definitely interested in getting students to make and understand biochar.

These kids are so efficient in their work that this is mainly what I've been doing:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Allan Baer's Stand-by Power Project

As if my students weren't doing enough cool stuff, Allan Baer's here (as I type) presenting to my students a new project that looks at stand-by power usage.

Allan's done this project before in the Galapagos and basically worked miracles there, bolstering education, taking his students to tv stations, and presentations before the UN, and influencing national legislation in Ecuador through a refrigeration replacement program. In his words, he basically "got drafted" by the National Science Foundation to do the same type of work in the United States.

I'm not sure how we were so lucky to connect with this guy, but I'm pretty excited about this for a number of reasons:
(did I mention I love lists?)

1) I love data.
2) I love students taking their own data.
3) I love students taking data relevant to their own lives.
4) I love students taking data relevant to other people's lives and then presenting to them, and making change in the world as a result of their findings.

So good. All these pieces for me add up to a sweet project.

Allan Baer says, there was only one stand-by power study done in the United States on the household level (as opposed to in a lab). And apparently that one study only sampled 10 household. So if even one of my classes does this study we will have a more telling sample size than the most credible study on the topic to date! Very interesting. Super-exciting.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Air Quality Device at MHS

My Chemistry in the Community class has been hoping to measure air quality around Montpelier with a fairly sophisticated device, recently acquired, used, from a school in CT. It can read levels of CO2, CO, SOx, NOx, particulate matter, radiation, temperature, relative humidity, and a variety of other things. The students, working in groups, have devised questions to pursue answer about the air quality in Montpelier, and we've determined 5 sites at which the air will be measured with this device hopefully every year for the next 10 years.

Where are the lucky sites?
1. Hubbard Park
2. The intersection of State & Main streets
3. The College Green at VCFA
4. Montpelier High School
5. Somewhere high up on North Street

These sites represent a variety of elevations and traffic/population densities represented in Montpelier.

Now if we could only get the dang machine to connect to a computer.... :P

(I'm afraid that what I'm actually teaching students is that "real science" requires fancy equipment that mostly doesn't function)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Transitioning to a New Church

For about three years now I've commuted to go to church. I know. I bought a place so near to my work that I didn't have to drive even all last winter (I know, I'm crazy), but good church communities are like wild blackberry bushes. They're a delight to find and you certainly keep a mental note of the location and keep going back. So I've been commuting the 50 minutes or so to attend St. Andrew's regularly on weekends to participate in a delightful blackberry bush-like church.

But this hasn't exactly proved sustainable for me on a few levels. It's quite a bit of travel time. It means I don't end up hanging out with the people there very much, so I'm only loosely in community with them. I can't really invite my interested friends to church cause it's such a time commitment. And as any good gardener knows, the proximity of your garden to your front door directly affects its productivity. So being in charge of the "church garden" from 50 minutes away wasn't, perhaps, a great plan.

Of course, I wanted to see St. Andrew's grow into health, and with regular attendance over 40, and our finances starting to become sustainable in the foreseeable future, I feel pretty good about their future. Meanwhile, what blackberry bushes do we have here? I'm sure there are lots of good churches, but I hadn't found one I felt at home at until recently. Well, feeling "at home" may not be quite the right word.

My former youth pastor, Tom Friedrichs, recently took over the Alliance church in Barre as well as continuing to pastor his own church in Orange. Every Sunday he races from the 9am service at Barre Alliance to the 10:30am(?) service at Orange Alliance. Barre Alliance had been in kind of a tough spot, so he called me up to say, "hey come play music for Barre Alliance." So I went, and though it's no St. Andrew's, they are in an unusual and interesting spot where they are highly flexible and open to change - quite a delightful opportunity.

I mean how often do you find a church (particularly in Vermont) who is open to new ideas? Gosh. It's awesome. I mean, fair enough, they were in a tough spot for a long time. Shockingly since Tom took over preaching and I started coordinating the music they've more than doubled their congregation. WHAT? Yes. More than doubled.

St. Andrew's knows that I'm stepping down from my position on the leadership team in March when my term is up. But until then I'll be doing double duty.

So far I've been able to influence the meeting time at Barre Alliance, advocating for discussion questions during church, but how do I influence them to be more green. Granted the culture of this church is significantly different than the hip young progressive culture of Burlington, VT. This is a church where I had a lengthy dialogue about whether or not it was appropriate to have an American flag on the stage. In the same Sunday I had to call out a guy for not recycling (his excuse: "Well, I'm a bachelor". My response: "Do you care about people? Then recycle. Living alone has nothing to do with whether or not you recycle.") as well as calling a different guy out for burning his garbage (me: "dude, that's so not cool. Don't burn your garbage, dude."

So they've got a little further to go. That's ok. I guess I can make a bigger difference here by teaching them how to set up more sustainable systems for themselves. We'll do it as a church at first and hopefully they'll see this as a value at church and thus a value for their day-to-day lives.

Root Cellar at the High School

As you may have read, Montpelier High School has a fantastic local food program, largely thanks to Tom Sabo, who has spearheaded the many facets of this work. Each biology class grows food at some point during the year in the school's greenhouse, which is then sold in the cafeteria. The Earth Group at the high school is in charge facilitating the composting program, so that food scraps are sent to Vermont Compost, who then gives us a deal on dirt to grow more food.

In the past my physics students did a study of renewable energy to supply the greenhouse its electrical needs, and so now we have a grid-tied photovoltaic system atop the greenhouse which provides more than the demand of the greenhouse.

And now ... the next layer of awesome: a root cellar!In case you're not familiar with the concept, root cellars are basically natural refrigerators. It turns out that the ground maintains a temperature between 50-55 degrees Farenheit, depending on where you are and how deep you go down, which is already pretty cool, but there's a way to get it to 35-45 degrees, which is more suitable for storing veggies. All that's necessary is having an air inlet (low to the ground) and air outlet (closer to the ceiling). Thus hot air will escape out to the outdoors and denser, cool air will come in through the bottom inlet. Thus keeping your veggies at a nice cold temperature.

But root cellars don't just have to be dug into the side of a hill, they can also simply be a part of one's existing basement. All you need is a window or bulkhead or some other way for air from the outside to come into the space. Enter Montpelier High School.

Of the limiting factors preventing us from growing our own and buying more local food is storage space. With the addition of a root cellar, we could grow more, and buy more food in bulk in season from local farmers to serve our students.

It turns out, that MHS has one bulk head that leads to a space underneath the stage. We've had local root cellar expert, Richard Czaplinski, come down there to check it out and he thinks it will work. The administration is on board and the students are pumped.

Benefits:My students get to use thermodynamics to model the heat flow using equations for equilibrium, insulation R-values, and Q=mC∆T. It's an open-ended problem with no right answer that means something to our community, so it's authentic. Indeed, I do not know what the "right" answer should be. So we'll see what they come up with.

Mold & Asbestos. I spoke with the new facilities guy, Thom Wood, about the potential for mold and asbestos down there. So far the word is that he doesn't think that space was ever tested for asbestos. He and the principal are "pretty sure" it's safe, though I have another friend who is "pretty sure" there's asbestos down there. Hm. So we'll need to get it tested for both Mold and Asbestos by Crothers Environmental. So we'll see what they say.

Permitting. Thom also brought up that it's not technically a "habitable" space, but it probably doesn't need to meet the same codes as, say, a classroom (with natural light and ventilation), because basically it's like a large closet. Thom said he would speak with the fire marshal to figure what we would need to do to make it up to whatever code we need to meet.
*whew* I think it's going to happen. There are some nay-sayers, but I believe them to be under-informed.

My students are presently off and running with the project, we'll have some initial calculations soon I hope! :)

This is my physics class and I meeting with the Principal, Heat Custodian, the Service Learning Coordinator, a local grant writer: