You never know when or where a good idea will present itself. But many such ideas never materialize. They get jotted down on a piece of scrap paper or in the margin of our lesson planners, and that’s where they stay, left to wither away as we deal with the myriad routines that make up the teaching day.
In late 2013, one of these ideas happened across our path, but this time it would actually bear fruit. We had the opportunity to present at the International 1:1 Computing Conference held in Atlanta, Georgia in December. Of the many interesting sessions, one stood out to both of us. During Dr. Alicia Banuelos’ keynote address, she mentioned a smaller project within her bigger constitutional free Wi-Fi program in San Luis, Argentina that caught our imagination.
For this project, students collected data about their carbon footprint and calculated the number of trees needed to reduce it. After they had completed the work, and with the help of various partners, they started to plant trees in their community. The idea was intriguing, and we added another note to the margin of our conference agenda. While many of the ideas we gathered during those two days did indeed wither away, the embers of this one continued to smolder in our minds as we returned to our intermediate school, Amalgamated Academy.
Several months later, circumstance allowed the ember of this idea to be rekindled into a full-blown fervour. Each spring, the Newfoundland and Labrador department of Business, Tourism, Culture and Rural Development requests proposals for Youth Innovation Grants. These grants are for projects that put the youth of our province in control of creative and innovative initiatives. With the support of our school administration and community partners, we submitted a proposal in May 2014 that had at its core that seed of an idea planted in our minds by Dr. Banuelos.
Amalgamated Academy’s proposal focused on energy conservation, climate change, and the application of science, technology, engineering and math to solve practical problems that affect the daily lives of our students. We were successful in our grant application, and in September 2014, a group of about 15 curious and energetic students in Grades 8 and 9 came together to create Amalgamated Academy’s Conservation and Engineering Corps.
The work commenced that new school year with weekly extracurricular meetings. From the beginning this was a student-driven project. We challenged the group to become informed on their environmental impact through research, and more importantly experimentation, design, and the development of a plan to reduce their impact. The group’s work would end up including the design and development of multiple experiments, a community garden, and a personal solar mobile device charger – all attempts to take some personal and local proactive action regarding the bigger problem of climate change.
The value of partnerships
In order for students to have a genuine real-world learning experience, we had to allow them to engage with partners beyond the school. Amalgamated Academy has a great school community that extends beyond the walls of the building, and support for the project was easy to find. Partnership agreements were secured from the Town of Bay Roberts, O’Neill’s Gardenland, Memorial University’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Electrical Engineering department of the College of the North Atlantic. Each group’s contribution was essential, supporting the students’ efforts with community space, equipment and resources, horticultural expertise, scientific and engineering knowledge, and a practical electronics workshop. Each of these partnerships not only broadened the scope of the project, but allowed our students to experience the interconnectedness of the world around them. We wanted to give our students the opportunity to understand that the subjects they learn in school are not simply isolated knowledge domains, and that complex real-world problems require multiple perspectives and expertise for the development and application of successful solutions.
As we started the year-long project, students quickly recognized a connection between their energy consumption and the creation of carbon dioxide at our local oil-burning power generation facility, and how this is linked to climate change. To solidify this connection, the group devised a data collection method whereby they used a plug-in power meter to observe the electricity consumption of a number of household appliances and devices over time. The data collected by multiple students was analyzed and extrapolated to assess their impact on a larger scale. The next natural step in the project was to formulate a plan to reduce this impact. From their prior science background, our students recognized that plants utilize carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and would be part of a viable solution. They undertook extensive experimenting to determine the amount of carbon dioxide and oxygen present during photosynthesis. During the experimental design process, students used a variety of plants, materials, and apparatus before successfully collecting valid data. This part of the project allowed for growth in their ability to problem solve, work collaboratively, innovate, and gain an understanding of the work of scientists and engineers.
Once confident in their results, the group discussed multiple courses of action that could help on a local level. As this lively discussion unfolded over several sessions, the group decided on two courses of action. For the first part of their project they would undertake the design and creation of a community garden, with the support of the Town of Bay Roberts and O’Neill’s Gardenland. The second part of the project would focus on an avenue to reduce the use of fossil fuels for energy consumption. The exploration of alternative energy sources eventually led to a consensus on developing a device that would harness enough solar energy to charge a smartphone. This endeavour would be supported by the College of the North Atlantic.
Research into action
As spring approached, we were making good progress on the garden design. Students consulted with a local horticulturist from O’Neill’s Gardenland to design a low-maintenance diverse ecosystem. They created both computerized and physical 3D models that they presented to municipal officials for approval – a very proud moment for all students involved. As the snow receded, the group made multiple trips to the designated garden site to select the best location, make measurements, stake out their garden’s boundaries, and mark the location of their trees and shrubs. With the garden laid out, municipal workers moved in to clear the small plot of land and dig the bigger holes for the trees and shrubs – a gesture that was greatly appreciated by the group. Then the group returned with our local horticulturist for a lesson on proper planting techniques, and they spent the rest of the day carefully placing the trees, shrubs, and perennials into their new homes. But the work didn’t stop that day. The continued development of this garden has become one of the cornerstones of the group and extended into the next school year.
The students also had the opportunity to delve into the world of engineering. Almost everyone has a mobile device and no matter the brand, make or model, they all have a single common flaw. They all run out of energy. From this premise and the idea of alternative energy as a means of reducing their individual carbon footprints, the students decided to create a solar charger. We researched many different kits and components and in the end decided on a kit from Adafruit that would give the students a good balance of hands-on making and success. With the help of two instructors in the Electrical Engineering department of the College of the North Atlantic, our students participated in a beginner’s electronics workshop before tackling their own chargers. This process allowed for the development of many skills. The group became versed in basic circuit construction, soldering, troubleshooting, problem solving, and creating and printing 3D models – all within a collaborative and cooperative environment. In the end, everyone had a working charger that didn’t just come off the shelf and that met their goal of reducing their reliance on carbon-emitting energy.
While you can plan and have a rough idea of where you’ll end up with this type of experiential learning project, you never know exactly what will happen when you share a leadership role with your students. In our case, working on the garden extended into the next school year but students did not lose their motivation. This is a clear demonstration of how students respond when engaged in learning opportunities that connect them to their world. From a teacher’s perspective it has been, and continues to be, very satisfying to watch our students lead and learn, and to see the boundaries between the classroom and outside world blur into something more – something meaningful.
So it might be worth your while to take a minute and thumb through some of those old idea notes scribbled on the margins of your planner. You never know where they may lead!
En Bref: L’établissement de liens entre l’apprentissage des élèves et leur expérience vécue peut poser tout un défi. Les enseignants doivent parfois aller au-delà de l’enseignement en classe traditionnelle pour vraiment éveiller l’intérêt de leurs élèves. Cet article traite d’un projet d’un an réalisé par un groupe d’élèves et d’enseignants de l’Amalgamated Academy à Bay Roberts, parrainé par le ministère des Affaires, du Tourisme, de la Culture et du Développement rural de Terre-Neuve-et-Labrador. Ce projet visait à guider les élèves dans un processus d’enquête qui les a amenés à élaborer des solutions personnelles et locales à de vrais problèmes mondiaux liés au changement climatique. La participation au projet a permis aux élèves d’acquérir une foule de compétences en sciences, en génie, en technologies et en mathématiques.
Photo: David Gill
First published in Education Canada, September 2016