Friday, October 21, 2011

Retrofitting the school's basement into a root-cellar

We grow a lot of our own food here at MHS, but of course you can never have enough local food, and one of the limiting factors to local food being served in the cafeteria is storage space. We would grow more if there was a good place to store it. I have fond memories of a box of potatoes being stored in a air-conditioned closet just off the computer lab that also housed a Scanning Electron Microscope. Frankly, there's just not enough room in that closet with the SEM.

So my students took on the challenge of designing and mathematically modeling a root cellar for the school. We found an appropriate site, a portion of the basement accessible by a bulkhead, that we could retrofit to become a passively cooled root cellar space*.

The kids were totally pumped! They dove into that math, the concepts, modeling the heat flow, taking data down there. It was awesome. They came up with a plan. We met with the principal, the head custodian, and a grant writer. They were all on board - provided that we do all the necessary fund-raising, and got all the necessary permits.

All of that momentum and positivity slowed to a dead hault when we met with the building inspector to make sure that we could permit the retrofit, and then his analysis was a total buzz-kill. (That's gotta be a tough job, to be fair: telling people their idea is literally "not permitted"). Not only could we not have students down there, but we would not be allowed to put up any walls to portion off the space. It's frickin HUGE down there, and there was no way we could passively cool the entire space to the necessary temperatures. Why not? There was  no sprinkler head down there. There was also no standard-sized doorway into the space. The bulkhead on the outside leads to a mini-door, maybe 4 ft tall. Bummer. Not exactly up to code for what we wanted to do down there.

So I thought the project was dead. Great idea. Impossible logistics.

But when I ran into the head facilities guy, Thom Wood, who was also at the meeting with the city building inspector, I was shocked to hear his impressions of that meeting. I was all "Bummer about the sprinkler system, and the no building walls down there, huh?" And he was all "What do you mean? We can easily just add another sprinkler head for like $100, no big deal. Also, I was thinking we should call up that company from Barre that cuts cement. We could get them down there to cut the foundation so we can have a standard-sized door." I was aghast with delight. What!? This was possible again? Sweeeeeeeet! Thom Wood: unexpected hero of the day!

So we're still working on it. Here's where things stand presently: one of last year's juniors is still working on this with me as an independent study. We've continued to meet with Thom Wood who outlined the process of getting all the necessary permits, starting with the zoning permit, since we'll need to build a little shed over the now-existing bulkhead. We've met with the city zoning permit guy and he was like "You don't need to present this to the Design Review Board. Just send me a letter with sketches and a description of the outside." No problem, sir. No problem.

The student got that done, and now we're on to the Building Permit application, which will be a little more mmmm... in depth. But hopefully we'll have that done by December. We're still chugging. I love this stuff!

This is what the bulkhead looks like now.
This is the student's rendition of the bulkhead with the shed-entrance to the root cellar over it.

*"What the heck is a root cellar?" is a question I run into more frequently than I would have expected. It's a cool space (usually 35-50 degrees Fahrenheit) used to store vegetables like carrots, potatoes, cabbage, onions, etc. It was how people stored food before electric refrigerators were available. Typically built into the side of a hill, or a basement, the naturally cooler temperature of the earth helped to stabilize the temperature at a slightly below comfortable level.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Peer Tutoring Update

The peer tutoring program is up and running! WOO HOOO! Well... halvesies anyway. Specifically, we have started to match people up with one-on-one tutors; they've started to meet, and the feedback thus far is VERY positive. *whew* :) win-win-win (if you will).

The drop-in tutoring: meh, not so much. I think if we had a school larger than 350 students for 4 grades, we might actually have enough students to cover every period and be able to keep that room open, but as it is, it just hasn't come together - though not from lack of willingness on the part of the students.

Perhaps if we had a good start-date for that it could still get off the ground, but what we're finding is that some students we would otherwise have put in the drop-in room, wind up being the only one available for one-on-one tutoring a particular student. And THAT is where we think the real benefit occurs. So, I guess the one prong of this fork is eating the other. (Bad analogy? maybe. But I'm leaving it for now).