Saturday, October 13, 2012

Renewable Energy Project Revamp

So I've got this idea for my renewable energy project this year. Last year I had students look at their total energy (electricity and heating) bills for their own homes and calculate their BTUs per square foot, and then compare that with a standard number for what an energy efficient home ought to be. Of course most peoples were well over the recommended amount. But that's where I stopped last year, and fair enough. To do more would be asking students to stand up to their parents and challenge them to do better. I had a few conversations last year about this with the students. They said, "We are not the decision-makers in our homes, so what can we do?" I didn't have an answer for them.

But I have an idea. What if, in addition to the calculation of BTUs per square foot, students could research options for their households: PV, solar hot water, air source heat pumps, pellet stoves, pellet retrofits for oil furnaces, weatherization. They could do the calculations (they're not terribly hard) to figure out approximately how much money their family could save. Students fill out some form that would give parents some easy-to-look-at options and projected savings - specific to their house - and then we hold a parents night, where students present their work generally to their parents.

Part of me feels like this is too nosey and meddling. Part of me feels like if education does not have real-life applications, then why do it?

I think I'm going to do it. It gives students as voice with their parents (or at least an opportunity for them to have a voice). It could save people money. It could save the earth some long-cycle carbon. Those seem like good reasons, even if it is meddling.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

And then, my whole curriculum was digital!

This school year is shaping up to be possibly the best school year ever (I know - I say that every year), but just about every year I've been right about that! But this year perhaps more so than even other years because I worked my tuchus off going over my entire curriculum this summer, through the very sexy process of converting my notes into power points.

I told a science-teaching colleague of mine about my summertime endeavor and he replied, "Anne! Are you a closet lecturer? I'm shocked!" I assured him I was as constructivist as I knew how to be in my classes, but these power points serve a rather different purpose.

I will confess that my thinking can sometimes be non-linear, and hopefully this will help me to stay on track and removes the nagging question "What comes next?". When I get brilliant ideas for other units, I have a go-to location for depositing that thought for development at another time. I don't have to worry about creating notes for next week's class, or even next month's class, not to mention the benefits of when a student is out sick or leaves early for field hockey. I'm already more relaxed than this time last year, and I already feel like a better teacher.

Why did it take me so long to get to this point? Frankly, I knew this would be an intense undertaking, and at this point my compilation of files represents at least 80hours worth of work. But my gosh, it has been well-worth it.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ending the School Year with a Bang!

... or at least a lot of smoke!

I was working with my advanced physics students building a bicycle generator. We had all the wiring purchased and ready to set up. We were about to hook it all up to the alternator, when...

We got one of the connections switched, and in the process of pulling it out to fix it there were some sparks, and then there was some smoke, and then there was LOTS of smoke.

Long story short, we got to pull the fire alarm, use the fire extinguisher, and evacuate the entire school. That was an exciting day! It really was the best possible situation though.  No one got hurt, no property was damaged (except we melted some wires), and some genuine (and I mean genuine) learning occurred as a result. In hind sight there were at least three things we should have done differently: 

1. Don't bolt down the wires until you're sure they're where they should be.
2. You can never have too many fuses.
3. Don't forget: the frame is negative.

The best part was we couldn't figure out why it happened until we were outside, and THEN we realized it. Ok - the best part might have been that everyone was SUPER supportive: the superintendent, all the teachers who were outside with me, all the students. It was awesome. And there's no better advertisement for physics!

But there's one more portion of this story to write. The rest of that day we had class outside because my classroom was COVERED in fire extinguisher dust. For anyone who's experienced that stuff, oh man, I commiserate. That stuff gets EVERYWHERE, and it's NOT easy to clean up. The custodial staff at the high school did a _great_ job cleaning things up, but the thing they were not excited to touch: my closet.

Unfortunately, the door to my closet had been open and every surface was covered in white powder.

Truth be told, I have never cleaned out my closet in 8 years of teaching. There are boxes in there that I inherited which were never opened when I arrived, and I have never opened them. There were objects in there for which I have NO CLUE what they're for or how they work. So here was my opportunity. After school was out I got a couple of supplementary custodial workers to help me go through EVERYTHING in my closet and make the decision to either wipe it off or throw it out.

I didn't think to take a "before" picture, but here's the after picture with everything cleaned out:

And the rest of the room: 

I was able to donate a lot of the stuff I didn't want - most of it was electronic equipment from the 1980's, like oscilliscopes, multimeters, a centrifuge, etc. Great stuff. I hope some shopper at Resource in Barre will want those things!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Fuel for Thought

I received an interesting email today:

Dear NSTA authors,

An article you previously published in one of our journals has been chosen for inclusion in a new NSTA Press compendium titled Fuel for Thought. This volume is intended to help high school and upper middle school teachers demonstrate the interdisciplinary nature of energy in their classrooms. If you would like to receive a copy of the book, please send me your name and address. In addition, please don’t hesitate to ask any questions.

Thank you for your continued contributions to science education in general and the mission of NSTA in particular!

Woo hoo!

Remind me to write more articles! :)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Rekabites, the Amish, and the Year of Jubilee

I bet you've never heard of the Rekabites. I've read through the Bible twice and apparently glazed over their tiny spotlight both times. But their story caught me by surprise and resonated with me this time when I chanced upon it in my random daily reading, which happened to be in Jeremiah 35 the other day.

What's noteworthy about them? Why did they get a spotlight in the first place?

They bring up at least two important ideas. One: they're not exactly Jewish, and yet God says "Jehonadab son of Rekab will never fail to have a descendant to serve me." That sounds to me like another example of a non-chosen group of people being effectively recognized by God as "saved" if you will. This is a monstrous and what feels like a flagrantly heretical idea, but this is not the main idea I want to discuss. Someday I should write a post about this idea its connection with the book Eternity In Their Hearts by Don Richardson.

The other idea that I find fascinating about these people is that they are hardcore about holding back. Their ancestor apparently told them "Don't drink wine. Don't plant crops. Don't build houses." And so they didn't. Can you imagine the kind of culture that instills in a group of people, I mean besides the part where it means they are nomads.

First off, it reminds me of the kind of respect we Vermonters accord the Amish. Wow, what relics of culture! What self-reliance! What independence! The Rekabites were holding on to cultural ideals that were at the time going out of fashion. Cultures had only probably within the last 1000 years or so at the time become agrarian, moving "forward" from being hunter-gatherers.

They remind me of Romaine Tenney, the Ascutney farmer who used animal power instead of tractors through the 1950s, never got electricity hooked up to his house, and resisted the building of high way 91.

The Rekabites remind me of Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. Oh, you haven't read it!? Visit your local library and read it right now! In Ishmael, there's a re-interpretation of the story of Cain and Abel, which I appreciated since the sermons I had heard about that story since childhood were ummm... shall we say, unsatisfying at best. The moral of that story is usually, "give your best to God. If you don't he won't be satisfied." But how do we get that from the story? How are we, the readers, to know that Abel's gift of the fat from livestock would be more acceptable to God than "fruits of the soil"? Ishmael proposes that this story is actually a warning for the non-agrarian Jewish people against increasing cultural pressure (read raiding and pillaging cultures) that were agrarian. And that somehow God was more pleased with the sheep herder than the grain grower. Here again, we have the Rekabites probably tending herds, but not planting crops, and God is pleased with them.

This all funnels towards the idea of a year of Jubilee. I mean, come on. I'm not going to change my lifestyle back to one of hunting and gathering. Though I will confess the Roots School may empower me to do that. But there's this other idea in the Bible about a year of Jubilee as described in Leviticus 25, which feels slightly (though perhaps only slightly) more feasible. "The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. 12 For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields." Ok, I'll confess this seems contradictory to me. How do you eat what is taken directly from the fields without "harvesting untended vines". Perhaps the difference is in the word "harvest" there's an idea that you're not "storing up" anything. This is exactly the idea proposed in Ishmael, an idea lived out by indigenous cultures around the globe. Why should they plant crops when the forest is already full of food? What a lifestyle! Sit around creating art and music and when you're hungry, just go to the fields and pick something tasty. It's like the whole natural world is one large refrigerator. You probably don't believe me, but it's true, and you can learn about how to eat from the natural refrigerator from the Wisdom of the Herbs class on Wild Edibles.

The only difference is it's a refrigerator where we don't directly control what's in it.

People used to live this way. My ancestors, western caucasians as they were, used to live this way if you go far back enough, and it's almost as if God wants us to remember that way of life. It's a lifestyle that's deeply dependent on God's provision, but also synchronized with the local ecosystem.

There also seems to be a separate idea for every seventh year, like a mini-Jubilee. "You may ask, “What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?” 21 I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years." It seems as those God also wants us to be skilled in the art of food preservation.

Wouldn't it be interesting to run an experiment, to try to do these things, to live for a year on preserved food, to live for a year on only that which comes directly from the fields. In all honesty, in Vermont, that seems like a skinny kind of idea - one full of deer, racoon, and squirrel for 6+ months of the year. But... I'm sure it could be done.

Zooming out from this topic slightly, I have to confess that I feel like these parts of the Bible (Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) get overlooked mainly because they're hard to apply and also pretty boring to some degree. Some might even say, "well, that was a part of the old covenant. Jesus brought the new covenant, so we don't need to follow those old rules." This is why we eat pork after all! And fair enough, I get that, but these rules were made for a reason. Pork wasn't always as safe to eat as it is now. So I look at the rest of this part of the Bible with its large-scale economic and zoning outlines, and wonder why have I never had a conversation about that in a Christian Community?
What if our national debt policy was governed by Deuteronomy 15? Where eventually all debts are canceled. Woe. That would be revolutionary.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Fracking the Future (or opting for something better)

Yesterday I went in to see the school's facility manager to talk about the school's underground oil tank. According to one study I read this tank placed the school on Vermont's hazardous waste sites. I didn't think it was being used, but our conversation when in a couple of unexpectedly places. Here's basically the gist of what I got out of that conversation:

  • We're still using that tank.
  • It can and will fail at some point.
  • When it fails it will be expensive
  • The heat planned to be delivered to the school through the District Heating project in Montpelier will not replace our oil burners.
  • If we did want to replace the oil burners with something above ground, the maximum size allowable is 250 gallons, which means a delivery once a week, and that's where all the danger comes from: the transport of oil.
  • The tank below ground now has a capacity of 12,000 gallons.
  • The tank at the elementary school has already had a leak within the last few years.

Isn't it funny how reality can be so much more complicated than it is in one's head? :) Oh dear. So I don't think I'll be leading any crusade to dig up these tanks and replace them with anything.

Among other things, Thom, the facilities guy, and I discussed how natural gas is going to largely replace oil where it hasn't already in the coming years. He said, "natural gas is going to become just disgustingly dirt cheap and will stay cheap for a long time." I believe he's probably right, and that concerns me. Anyone who's seen the documentary Gasland knows hydrofracking is shady at best. Oh man. Don't even get me started on fracking.

I'm just thankful that the VT house passed a moratorium on any new permits for fracking in the state of Vermont.

Truth be told I _really_ don't want to see us become dependent on another finite resource, a resource which, once mostly depleted, will force us to push the limits of safety to satisfy our addiction, just like we're doing now with oil. I hear that call to resist the coming attraction of natural gas also coming from Bill McKibben in a recent post on VTDigger.

I know I'll be talking to my students soon about fracking, and asking the question, "Which would you rather have: a fuel that's dirt cheap and will speed up the destruction of species, or a fuel that costs more but is renewable?" I know some of my students will either with curled smiles or straight faces say "the dirt cheap option." And they may mean it. Heck, who isn't completely self-centered when they're 17? ... ok, I know quite a few generous 17 year-old souls, but still. How will I get them to see the more generous side? How can I get them to think beyond their wallets?

I could go all game theory on them. What's good for the whole is ultimately what's good for the individual in some cases. This is one of them.

I may also just have them do some writing based on a quote from Dumbledore (found here):
Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.
Albus Dumbledore
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Perhaps it will feel like Sunday school, but I don't mind that. I think I may just do both of these things, because I don't think this lesson can be taught enough. Certainly, I am still learning it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Questions About Light

A biologist friend of mine recently emailed me with questions about the nature of light, so I figured I'd share his questions and my response. My favorite part is part 3 about the color magenta.

Hi Anne,

I'm teaching my kids in freshman bio about spectrophotometry tomorrow. To really understand it well you need to know how light wavelengths and filters work. I understand it well enough to teach it, but looking into color theory led me to some questions I am utterly confused about - we thought maybe you could help. Ok, here we go:

1. Supposed facts:
- White light is actually a combination of all light wavelengths from ~400nm to ~800nm
- White light can be made by shining blue light (450-475nm), green light (495nm-570nm) and red light (620-750nm)
Problem I have:
- If I make white light from red, blue and green light, how can I then derive yellow light (570-590nm) or cyan light (476-495nm) from it? How can white light be BOTH a combination of all wavelengths AND be successfully formed from three specific wavelength bands? If I use only three bands there are several holes in the spectrum.

2. Red light (620-750nm) plus yellow light (570-590nm) makes orange light (590-620nm).
- Does this mean that we perceive the light as orange as an average of the red and yellow - OR do the wavelenghts in the range 590-620 ACTUALLY exist - if so, from where did they origniate? Did the red wavelenths somehow shorten and did the yellow lengthen? If so how? Did the red wavelentghs somehow cause the yellow to lengthen? Likewise did the yellow cause the red to lengthen?

3. Similar to problem 2 - if I mix blue light (450-475nm) and red light (620-750nm) I get violet (magenta) light (380-450nm).
- How can mixing these two lights result in a wavelenth BELOW the lowest wavelength of origin?

Clearly I don't know much about light theory and it seems to me that it isn't a simple matter of adding and subtracting.

Anytime I do an internet search about "how to make magenta light" all I get is information telling me to mix red and blue - yes, but that doesn't tell me HOW the light (i.e. the wavelength range) is formed.

Any insight you have would be very welcomed!!!

Thanks so much!

My response:

Wow. Those are _really_ good questions, and I had to do some poking around to fill in my own gaps... ok, big gaps in my understanding. Here is what I've got for you, not total answers, but I hope it helps:

1. Since "white" is not really a color, you could say that the color white is just a construct in our minds. I wouldn't even say it's always made up of "all the colors". It's just the "color" we see when each of the 3 kinds of cones in our eyes are stimulated with an equivalent amount of red, green, and blue light. Though you could also get white from simply mixing cyan, magenta, and yellow monochromatic lights. So... yes! There can be holes. In fact, I'm pretty sure that most "white" light is full of imperceptible holes anyway, known as absorption and/or emission lines. They're not the same thing, but basically amount to the same idea: white light is not necessarily always made of "all the colors".
Here's more info on absorption/emission spectra:

2. I think it's good here to keep in mind that light is just the superposition (or overlapping) of many frequencies, so while I think orange can exist on its own (say as it's emitted from some glowing element), if you had orange light, composed of a red source and a yellow source, you could break it down through a prism, into those components. The yellow is not longer and the red is not shorter. It's a question of these two being superimposed and perceived as one color in this case - similar to white light that's composed of some set of other colors (red, green, blue, or magenta, cyan, yellow). This is governed by something called chromaticity, which is, as you suggested, a weighted average of the wavelengths of the ingredient wavelengths.
More here:

3. Ok, so here's where things get super weird. I don't think it's really fair to say that magenta has a wavelength. Magenta: not specifically included in the electromagnetic spectrum. You _can't_ get magenta without mixing two colors. I know. That's weird. Magenta on the color wheel is that special place where the two ends of the spectrum meet. I would think that our brains would just take an average like every other superposition, but no, in this case, we mix and get something entirely new. But then, why should I be surprised? When we mixed red, blue, and green we got white - also not in the spectrum.
more here:

I hope this has been helpful. I certainly had fun digging into this stuff a little deeper.

*** not included in the email: I suspect that all the non-spectral colors (including magenta, brown, grey, white) are physical examples of emergence. Emergence is one of my favorite concepts in the universe.