Monday, June 16, 2014

Teaching for Sustainability through Green Initiatives



Note: This draft was submitted to Community Works Journal  ---  See edited story here!

The job of educators is to prepare students for the world, so they can have a real impact.  Yet we rarely practice those skills in high school.  The true passion, problem solving and perseverance are often vacant from the assignments we do with our young adults in high school.

But it does not have to be that way! Project based learning offers a variety of ways for students to have a true impact in their community and their world.  That impact is often not constrained by the students but by educators and administration.  What happens when student are posed the assignment - complete a project that helps the school and community AND that project needs to have a true global impact?

Amazing things happen.

The assignment started in the fall of 2011 with my thought that my Physics students needed more exposure to real world problem solving. Problems where you must persevere, where there is no correct right answer, but the thought of what it should be and how to assess what was accomplished seems daunting – until you tell them “Select a project that will help the school/community and the world and make it happen.  I don't want a report or essays or papers, I want steel and concrete – I want tangible results.”

And then I sat back and watched the students struggle, some sat around waiting for orders. But I kept repeating to come up with a plan – it quickly led to true brainstorming and the idea that we could reduce Juda's carbon footprint thus reducing our energy cost! Daunting project, you bet; time consuming in class, sure; but the learning was amazing.
 
There are many avenues, many ideas, and many methods to making that goal. So the students made teams and defined deliverables (I had some input there – if you work you deliver). They did research. They contact vendors, suppliers, talked with staff, thought, reflected, thought of ideas, checked their ideas – failed – and tried again. But they were learning that a dead-end was simply a step to the solution, they were not guided by a predetermined lesson plan. They were working only with the constraints of a real world project – payback, ROI and need.

And all of that is more important than the results, but results are what were assigned – or should we say demand; demanded by the students – because it becomes their goal and project. All of sudden you don't need to make assignments – you simply need weekly update meetings. You don't have to hold students accountable their peers do – because it is their project.
Results happen because students are given the latitude to accomplish their goal!

At Juda, students chose green energy as the method to meet the goal and divided into solar and wind research teams. Researching ways to install either a turbine or panels, doing the bids, the Return-On-Investment (ROI), the financing – calculating how, why, what and where.

So where did my first team of students get to in 9 months, September 2011 to May 2012 – from inception of their idea to the end of the school year is not very long. The students had done all the research, competitively bid solar and wind, selected a preferred solar supplier, obtained permits, discuss the project with administration and our school board, worked on achieving ROI – and that is where the first group left the project. Now often it would end there with a bid, but the key to PBL is to continue the previous before starting the new!  So this became a legacy project -- because that is what the world does!  It reassigns projects - moves around team members.  This was just a pause in the project versus its end.

One problem initially with my rural school is that Physics is offered every other year.  So a team of students who had taken Physics the previous school year watched on grants and financing outside of an 'assigned class' during the 2012-2013 school year.  

 Then Wisconsin Focus-On-Energy money became available in the summer of 2013, and this was the last piece of the puzzle for the first project.  We had worked on financing, discussed finding business partners and this Focus on Energy grant with other local business support allowed the project to proceed. It then became the Physics class of 2013 job to do the install, and starting in September 2013 Juda was generating over 5 kW of electricity for our school . Meeting the original goal of positive community impact along with a global impact – but that was not enough. Because as that assignment was completed, it was now 2013's Physics class turn - you complete the prior project, now start yours! 

That is how project based learning comes to be a cultural change, the learning becomes perpetual.  The students not only want to be part of the team on the previous project but literally demand their own project.  

 The 2013-2014 Physics class's project is to make 10% of the school's total power be generated greenly on school property, really ambitious when the 5 kW solar system is only 4% of the schools power.   They have already installed another 12 panels increasing the systems capacity by 50% to 7.5 kW.  They have started conservation projects, such as lighting and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC).  

And now this project is being moved onto to the next team in the next school year. Plenty has been accomplished – nearly 7% of the school’s power is green now.  And I feel confident that the next class will get to 10%.   But that was not enough for the previous class they also want to roll out the PBL Green Initiative model to other schools – every school should have students working on a 5 kW green energy system – even if you already have a solar array or a wind turbine!  This story is my part of their project.

We want you to take on a green initiative with you and your students.  We are offering ourselves as guides, myself and my students - take the plunge. We want contact with you, email, call, snail-mail, even by carrier pigeon.  Let the chaos ensue – let the real learning occur!
Tap the resources in your school that is before you, make your students your workers - and watch them practice and acquire the skills the world wants from schools – passion persistent problem solvers!

It takes a certain level of courage as educator – you must be willing to pick great projects over good material.  You need the belief that covering an allotted number of chapters does not create problem solvers. Problem solvers are created through real problems and practice (and textbooks & e-books rarely have problems, they're filled with exercises).

And as the students reflect on their accomplishments, this project is truly one of the most memorable, permanent things which they have done.  It shows them what persistence, research and resilience can do.

So when you think about how and what you teach, know this is one of the things that I consider untouchable. 



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HOW TO SUBMIT AN ARTICLE OR ESSAY
Submissions should be sent by email, as an attachment. Most word processing formats are acceptable. Minimal formatting is suggested. Word count maximum is generally 1,600 words. Please contact us if this is a problem. In some cases we will edit for length with the author's request. An exception to word maximum may be the inclusion of information on a resource of significance to the article.
The author's name and email must be included.
Community Works Journal
PO Box 6968  l Los Angeles, CA 90602 l 909-480-3966

email: info@communityworksjournal.org
- See more at: http://www.communityworksinstitute.org/cwjonline/submitguide.html#sthash.k5jAZuub.dpuf
Dr. Cathleen Becnel Richard is an Assistant Professor at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. She earned her doctorate in 2010 from Northcentral University in E-Learning and Teaching Online. Her research interests include academic advising, distance learning, reflective learning, and service learning. - See more at: http://www.communityworksinstitute.org/cwjonline/articles/aarticles-text/bayou_tchgsustain.html#sthash.uZ3CFLf1.dpuf