Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Asking Authentic Questions with Tangible Consequences

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Asking Authentic Questions with Tangible Consequences

Article excerpt

As a physics teacher, it seems irresponsible to teach energy without asking students hard, relevant questions such as, "What will we do when oil becomes prohibitively expensive?" Therefore, in the fall of 2005, I asked my physics students to identify some energy-related problems in our community that we could solve. During brainstorming sessions, students in my senior-level physics course generated a huge list of suggestions. Even though students came up with excellent ideas, the suggestions were a bit too complicated and expensive. Eventually, with help from other faculty, we came up with a suitable project: Students would research options for a renewable onsite power source for the new water pump we would soon buy for our school's greenhouse. My students were immediately excited about this project and we went right to work.


Exploring different options

The greenhouse at our high school was completed in 2004 and biology students began using it in the fall of 2005 to produce salad greens for the school lunch program. Compost is collected from the cafeteria and trucked to Vermont Compost Company, which in turn provides a cheaper rate for soil to grow more plants in the greenhouse.

In keeping with the sustainable ideals of our school and community, we were committed to providing the electricity for the pump from a renewable, localized system. The first step for our project would involve conducting a feasibility study regarding our onsite electric generation options. Students were perfectly capable of doing the research and they proposed many potential sources--wind, solar, hydro, and even bicycle generators.

The feasibility study became the culminating project for a unit on energy and power. Students, working alone or in pairs, chose one possible power source to research. The final activity of the project was to present the research to the class with a recommendation to the school to pursue the option or not. The presentation had to include energy and power calculations (linking this project to traditional science standards), as well as documented evidence that students had contacted an expert in the community regarding their research topic. After all, if the school was really going to invest in one of these options we needed expert advice. The students squirmed at the thought of calling an adult they didn't know, but I assured them that it was a skill they would use throughout their lives.

As students began to contact experts, we found ourselves flooded with support from the community. For example, the president from Solar Works Inc. (a local photovoltaic company) came to our classroom to discuss the benefits and challenges of solar panels. Other groups that helped inform our students' presentations included Windstream Power LLC, Northern Power Systems Inc., and Central Vermont Solar and Wind. …

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