Thursday, April 3, 2008

Engaging these students is down to a science

Photograph by Deddeda Stemler

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 2, 2008


Garrett Brisdon teaches Grade 9 science the way he wishes his own class had been taught.

Instead of tedious lectures and notes chalked onto a blackboard, his students learn chemistry by being crime-scene analysts and astronomy by building miniature robotic Mars rovers from plastic bricks.

Once teenagers are engaged in thinking, it's hard to get them to stop.

Now, the class is discovering how to take their classroom off the school's electricity grid.

The school was built in 1929. It has old toilets, old windows, old overhead lights.

A replacement building has been in the works for years. Little has been spent on upgrades.

A recent assignment tackled the issue.

Problem: “A lot of valuable energy is ‘going out the window' at Oak Bay High School.”

Hypothesis: “An integrated solar panel system … would save electrical energy.”

Assignment: “(I)nvestigate the situation, gather and analyze the data, and make a proposal for a new, green Oak Bay High!”

The class of 30 ecoarchitects met with the assistant supervisor of maintenance for the district. They analyzed energy-efficient buildings as far afield as New York, North Carolina and Beijing. They quizzed a representative from a local technology firm specializing in solar power. They studied the school's power bill.

They started drawing.

At lunchtime yesterday, six teenagers gathered in Mr. Brisdon's office (he's also one of Oak Bay High's vice-principals) to talk about kilowatts and solar modules and photovoltaic solar-panel systems.

They showed drawings of a model school with solar panels on the roof and water filters in the basement.

Adam Beaudoin and James Mazza, both 14, designed a school with a greenhouse (“to study vegetable cultivation”), composting toilets and a cafĂ© in which students would be employed.

A team of girls envisioned a school with geothermal heating and daylight sensors in each classroom.

They think about sustainability all the time. They know it's a concern not everyone shares.

“Power is cheap in B.C.,” said Courtney Rosskelley, 14, “so it's not on people's minds as much.”

“Our generation will be the ones to start the change,” insisted Samantha Rush, 15.

“It's good to take the first step to make our school ecofriendly,” said Alex Gurney, 14.

The energy assignment is only part of the science curriculum. The students were lost in space yesterday, unveiling their miniature Mars landers.

Their introduction to space exploration included audio clips of Orson Welles's infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. Then, they watched a YouTube clip of Mr. Welles apologizing to the world for the real-life panic the radio play caused. And they built gadgets from Lego Mindstorms that had to move by remote control and use a robotic arm to pick up a piece of plastic representing a Mars rock.

Some students gaped when their device worked. Some went back to the drawing board.

The unit for chemistry began with the Big Bang, moving on to subatomic particles and atoms and the periodic table. The students were then presented with a mock crime scene. They were confronted by an unknown fluid and unidentified powders on the floor. Using simple litmus tests and spectrograph analysis, they were to determine the scenario.

The teenaged Sherlock Holmeses did well, with two of every three students determining the culprit to have been a cat and the victim a goldfish in a bowl knocked over.

“I try to make it the kind of course I wanted to take as a kid,” Mr. Brisdon said. He designed the lessons with science teacher Eric Simonson, a physics specialist now on leave, and teaches with Chris Granger.

The school's colour, appropriately enough, is green.

On April 24, during Earth Week, the school is holding a student-organized conference on sustainable living. Some 20 local environmentalists will make presentations. One of the keynote speakers will be University of Victoria climatologist Andrew Weaver. Ellen Hunter-Perkins, a Grade 12 student, said the conference will tackle such issues as transportation and the 100-mile diet.

“Our generation is a lot more educated about our global footprint,” she said.

That's one reason they want the overhead lights in next fall's Science 9 classroom to be off the school's electric grid.

When Michael Marek spoke to the class about the solar products available from Carmanah Technologies of Victoria, he expected to make a brief presentation. Instead, the session lasted 55 minutes. He was surprised by the students' enthusiasm and inquisitiveness.

“I was impressed with how forward-thinking they are,” he said.

Instead of waiting for government money, the students are going to launch a fundraising drive to get the $10,000 necessary to buy solar panels.

If they succeed, their project will be a showpiece, a model that can be incorporated into the new school to be built at the site in the coming years.

This batch of Grade 9s will have been promoted before their class provides its own power. In the vice-principal's office, they agreed they'd come back to help the next class complete the project, flipping the switch on a new day at the school.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.


Toddero said...

That is a brilliant article. Garrett Brisdon is a very forward thinking administrator. I hope its people like him who end up running our educational systems! Thanks for posting it.


Unknown said...

Hi Tom

Good article! and a great picture...
Is it possible for me to use (a clip) of it in a local flyer that i am working on for the danish World Robot Olympiad final at the University of Aarhus, Denmark ??