Vocational Teacher’s Dream of a
Green Energy Academy Comes to Life
by Jane Califf
Vocational and technical high schools are not known for being on the cutting edge of educational programs. Instead, they are often looked upon as inferior to conventional high schools because they are seen as a place you choose to learn a trade rather than considering college for a professional career.
This stereotype was broken when I heard of a classroom – Bloomfield Vocational and Technical High School, New Jersey – that is not entirely dependent on the state electrical grid. The teacher and his students create most of the electricity they need at no monthly cost from solar panels and a small wind turbine they installed on the school grounds.
To find out more, I visited the school in March 2012. Bloomfield Tech has a student population of 455, mainly African American and Latino, and a ratio of one teacher to 12 students. In such a small setting, students get more attention and encouragement, which undoubtedly helped their school to be chosen in 2009 as a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education, an award based on improving academic achievement.
Almost immediately upon my arrival, I was taken on a tour of outdoor installations and the classroom by two enthusiastic seniors, Christian Bojorquez and Faraji James. Outdoors, they pointed out:
two large solar panels, one stationary and one which moves to follow the sun’s path to collect as much energy as possible.
a small wind turbine that students and Mr. Menadier assembled and installed. Wires attached to the solar panels and turbine lead to large batteries in the classroom where power is stored.
a geodesic dome, also assembled by teacher and students, that serve as a greenhouse to grow vegetables for school lunches. Two small solar panels on its roof power indoor fans and a water pump. Christian elaborated: “The geodesic dome parts came with a binder and video to show the sophomores and seniors how to put it together; but it wasn’t specific to our plans so we had to read everything and figure out how to put it together. We worked hard and it took us awhile to finish.”
a composter being built by a senior which will turn kitchen scraps into fertile soil for use on school grounds.
a shed built for a biodiesel fuel maker to turn used oil from local restaurants into fuel for school buses and trucks.
a roof garden that helps keep the room underneath warm in winter and cool in summer.
Highlights in the classroom included:
classroom renovations that included non-toxic paint on the walls; lots of windows to let in more light to conserve energy; flooring made out of cork; high efficiency, full spectrum lighting that has all the colors of the sun in order to see and learn better.
a small shed that is used to practice energy audits and installing insulation to learn how to make buildings more energy efficient.
plants growing in pots on window sills under strings of small high efficiency LED “grow” lights that shine on seedlings promoting steady growth for eventual placement in the greenhouse.
Lots of computers and software to help students learn about clean energy systems and to help them with their projects.
How the Green Energy Academy was Born
Todd Menadier, the science teacher who conceived and developed the program that made all this possible, explained the genesis of his course which is now a model that a new state-wide curriculum is building upon.1
“I thought of the idea of a Green Energy Academy (GEA) in 2007 when, upon hearing the new superintendent, Dr. Michael Pennella, speak about how he hopes the district will go in a more "green" direction, I thought, ‘More green!? What more can I do?’ and a lot of ideas came about. As a physics teacher, I have always been interested in energy and was hoping to incorporate more of that into the physics program. I didn't originally envision an entire academy dedicated to it, but the support of Dr. Pennella and PSEG, New Jersey’s main energy provider and distributor, was overwhelming, and before I knew it, we were making an entire program.
“I am fortunate to have a "Physical Science" certification which allows me to teach both chemistry and physics. The understanding of physics is much more relevant than chemistry to energy and much of the GEA content (with the exception of our biodiesel reactor). However, you are correct in asking how I, as not only a new teacher, but as a teacher with no history (and at the time only a little understanding) of green energy/sustainability education was able to create this program. I guess, I have to say that all I had to do was ask.
“Once I mentioned it to the right person at the right time, we were off and running. Of course, we did start very small with a budget of only about $5,000 from a PSEG grant and a class size of 12; we instituted a 45 minute course offered once per quarter. That initial response was so positive and the experience of creating the course so influential on my desire to continue that I sought out more funds from PSEG and other places. I was confident in asking, now that I had some experience, and the following year we had a $25,000 budget. I was never afraid to think big, and I was able to ‘sell’ the concept of the course since it was so innovative and such a draw to current technology.
“However, it took a lot to convince the state and even my colleagues, that a new Career and Technical Education (CTE) course was needed and that Bloomfield Tech should be the first to have one. At the time, there was (and still is) a lot of talk about the "burgeoning green workforce" but there is just as much talk of "greenwashing" and how the skills of the "green" workforce are the same skills as a traditional tradesmen, but with a different label. We were able to convince the state that there is a fundamental difference in "sustainability" education than traditional trade education... it is a lifestyle, not a skill. We teach students about systems thinking and about how they influence/impact the world with their energy, food, water, and material use. From there, they learn the skills required to minimize this impact--from electric skills necessary to wire a solar array to energy auditor skills that will increase efficiency and minimize waste. We must have done a great job as the state sees us as a role model for future courses as is evident by the portion of the GEA curriculum embedded within the state's Green Program of Study curricula.”
The Curriculum of the Green Energy Academy
Mr. Menadier teaches sophomores and seniors. Another teacher instructs the freshmen and juniors. They get help from all of the other Career and Technical teachers, the Science Department, and especially from Mr. Jim Simonsen – an administer in the district who has experience in construction.
A brief outline of the course follows:
Freshman year: Students now spend an hour a day for ten weeks in an “exploratory” course to learn why the GEA was created and to decide if this is the program they want to major in. (They also spend time learning about other programs offered in their school: Construction, Communication and Audio Video Technology and Business Technology.) In the GEA, they learn:
The U.S. is generating electricity in an unsustainable manner.
Oil, coal and gas companies are burning up the world’s fossil fuels and polluting our environment with greenhouse gases.
These gases are contributing to climate change, which threatens current and future civilizations.
Renewable energy like solar, wind and biodiesel from non-food sources are non-polluting, plentiful and can create millions of jobs.
We need to get away from using foreign sources for energy.
The curriculum is based on the fact that most people, students included, don’t know where their energy comes from or how it is generated. They just plug in a cord, pull a switch and energy activates. As a result, this introduction to energy teaches about thermodynamics, how to change chemical energy to thermal and mechanical into electrical energy. They learn the very basics: they map out and draw pictures to show different types of energy production. They learn a little about solar; they set up a couple of solar panels to see how they work; they learn a little about wind by actually designing a wind turbine.
Sophomore year: Students focus entirely on design and engineering principles: How do you create a good design? What is the process? Mr. Menadier describes the procedure:
“I put them in groups and they brainstorm; they come up with some ideas, and sketch those ideas; they build a prototype; they test it, analyze it, reevaluate it, redesign it, and rebuild it if necessary. They keep going over and over it until they have a product. They find ways to monitor it to see if it is really green and sustainable.
“They focus on photovoltaics; they design and build a solar panel using a computer software program. As they build it, they learn basic soldering and drilling techniques, use of tools like drills and saws, how to apply paint and how to clean up properly. They master a lot of basic skills, and they have a great product in the end which they can take home and use to charge small batteries and cell phones.
“They learn where to place solar panels outdoors. We go outside and evaluate, “Is this a good spot? And everyone says, ‘It’s a great spot because the sun is shining right on it.’ But I ask, ‘Is the sun always going to be shining on it?’ So we have to talk about the path of the sun and any obstructions. We talk about the cost of solar and incentives to promote solar installations provided by New Jersey, other states and other countries like Germany.”
Junior year: Students study energy efficiency; they learn how to conduct energy audits to determine how to evaluate any structure for energy efficiency and how to retrofit it. In the GEA classroom there is a small shed that students practice on.
Senior year: “Students learn about the national electrical grid. For example, how does electricity from Canada get to us? It is being generated at 760,000 volts but when it enters homes and buildings, it is only 120 volts. How does that happen? To understand this, they learn about transmission and distribution systems. They learn about the demand for a Smart Grid which is implemented on a small scale now but needs to be national.” (A Smart Grid would use the latest technology to revamp our aging electrical grid system to increase its efficiency and reliability, shorten power outages, reduce energy waste in the delivery process and thereby reduce greenhouse gas emissions.)
“Students also learn about new technology that can monitor home electrical use so as not to be drawing energy unnecessarily. Finally, each senior must complete an individual capstone project in order to graduate.”
The Need for Grant Money
The GEA could not be effective using funds from meager school budgets. Too much computer software and materials are needed. Standard school budgets require that all teachers order everything at the same time through certain approved companies, and it always goes out to the lowest bidder. You therefore don’t often have the opportunity to order the best quality items or to order them when you need them.
Mr. Menadier went out of his way to find grant money. “The first grant came with a lot of work, but after that, it was easier because our program was operating, and we could demonstrate what we had accomplished with the money that we had. We even started getting calls from companies that said, ‘Can we give you money? We really like your program and what you are doing.’”
Without extra funds, the program would not have had a chance for success. Students would not be able to undertake the advanced projects that they do. With the grant money, students are better able to come up with challenging projects. They decide on what they need, get quotes from companies, and order the materials. As a result, they are able to fulfill their projects because of the money they have easy access to.
Todd Menadier’s Teaching Philosophy
Mr. Menadier builds up his students’ confidence to tackle projects for understanding and creating renewable energy by having them read inspiring books and articles and view videos of teenagers who undertook difficult but successful experiments. One resource he uses is a book entitled “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” that describes in detail how a poverty-stricken boy in Malawi, Africa, built a windmill out of materials he found in a scrap yard and brought electricity to his family’s home. He later became famous in his country and beyond for this incredible achievement, and for his commitment to help his community and poor communities around the world gain the renewable energy they need. This story gives inspiration and courage to GEA students to undertake the difficult tasks of understanding electricity and creating renewable energy projects of their own.
Mr. Menadier shows students how to work in groups to learn collaboration skills; he rotates leaders so they can develop leadership ability. He encourages them to find answers to problems without relying on him.
“The major, overarching priority for me is to get kids to realize that they are independent learners; that they are capable of learning even if I wasn’t here; when I give them projects, I give them hints as to which direction to go in, but I won’t hold their hand. I ask them, ‘What is it you are doing? What do you want to accomplish? What is it that you want to calculate or monitor or find?’ It makes them think and realize it’s a struggle, but when you get it, it’s you who got it and nobody gave it to you.
“Also, you obviously need to create an environment of trust where students are motivated. If you show them what you care about and what you feel about your subject, discuss relevant news, give them articles to read related to your course and show them that they can influence what happens in the classroom and beyond, they start to trust you and to trust themselves to reach their goals.”
As he gazed around at his 15 seniors busy at individual and group work in his classroom, he remarked, “Look at them now. They work very well independently. They are capable of doing things on their own. It was not always this way. It was a lot of pulling, a lot of me saying, ‘You can answer that question on your own, do that on your own, figure that out on your own.’ They finally realize, ‘Yeah, I can to that.’”
I asked Mr. Menadier to give an example of a student who went through a positive transformation as a result of his courses. He described a girl who was intelligent but did not have the science and math background she should have had by the time she came into high school. As a result she was very quiet.
“One day she finally just stepped up and said, ‘I want to be the presenter for the project we are working on,’ which blew me away because she was always so shy about everything.
“I said to her, ‘Are you sure? You’ll have to get up in front of 30 or 40 people.’ (This was to be a press conference at which we would be given a grant of $35,000 from our electricity provider, PSE&G. A number of officials would be attending including school board members.)
“‘I’m definitely sure. I don’t know if I am ready for this, but I do want to try, because of what I’ve seen in the classroom, but I haven’t had the opportunity to do it yet.’
“She stepped up and ever since then she has really gained confidence, taken off and worked so well. The key to this was watching her peers and realizing that they are capable of doing these things, and therefore she should be as well.”
Importance of experiential learning
“As an environmental energy and sustainability educator, I envision learning as experiential: the students are creating; they’re developing. I mean look at the field out there; it’s an amazing project; they’re so proud of that because they were part of it. The seniors actually got mad because I raised the tower for the wind turbine with the sophomores in the morning, and they said, ‘We wanted to be there for that.’
“They go through the process and learn so much because they are creating and doing something. A lot of learning in the historical and contemporary context is done through reading, memorizing and sitting in the classroom listening to lectures and that kind of thing - learning that is not project-based.”
When Mr. Menadier decided to build the geodesic dome as a greenhouse, he spoke to the faculty at his school inviting them to make it part of their curriculum such as using it for art classes; for students learning the skills of heating, ventilation and air conditioning; for history classes to use to discuss the historical background of where our food comes from; for science classes to discuss the evolution of fruits and vegetables such as how hybrids are created.
Mr. Menadier was disappointed in the response. “I didn’t get any comments from the faculty except that I heard somebody saying, ‘How does he expect us to go out into this greenhouse when we have our curriculum to cover and the state standards?’ His mindset was I can only teach what the state tells me to teach, and I can’t do anything else. When you look at the standards, they are very bland and do not include any experiential learning; it is all content, not style.
“As time has passed, some teachers have become interested for themselves such as how to compost and to take some compost home, but their interest is not necessarily for their classes. However, there are others who are beginning to implement eco-conscious choices in their curriculum such as use of natural paints in art classes and sustainable design in the Business program.
“Our school has a Green Club composed of students who are in or out of the Green Energy Academy who want to learn more about ways to save our environment. The idea for the greenhouse came from architecture and biology students who researched greenhouses and found the design and the grants to build it.”
Students Comment on the Green Energy Academy Experience
As Christian and Faraji showed me accomplishments of the GEA outdoors and in, they commented on the experience of being in this program that in 2012 had about 60 students in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades:
Christian: “I believe this program has helped us become a family. We know each other well, we joke around and have fun with one another, but when it comes down to it, we get right to work; we have learned how to present, to cooperate and compromise.
She explained why: “We work a lot on projects together; there’s not a lot of individual studies for your first 3 years; it is your final year where you do independent studies. For the first 3 years, we work together, try to figure out our problems and see how we can put this idea and that idea together to make a better project; so it really does help us out.
Faraji: “Sometimes you have the problem of someone who is not doing his share of the work, and basically you just talk to the person and say that they have to pull their end up because we don’t want to do all the work by ourselves. We ask them to step it up. But we don’t have that problem any more because each person knows what they have to bring to the table since everything is made clear.
“With our capstone projects, we help each other. For example, we see Chris outside building a charging station for electric bikes, and the people who are helping him even though it is not their project because they know he needs help.
Christian: “We don’t help him or others because Mr. Menadier tells us to help. We help because their project is interesting, they’re our friends, and we like to help.”
Faraji: “Mr. Menadier is often here until 4 and 5 p.m. when he can leave at 3 p.m. Certain days are set aside to work on college things. He helps us in filling out applications and applying for scholarships. He works really hard to find different scholarships for us; he tells us every day what scholarships we can apply for to cut down on college funds. We write essays and he critiques us on how to be better writers. We learn many skills such as Microsoft Office, giving powerpoint talks, presenting in front of each other; we do a lot of math, science, chemistry and physics.”
Christian: “He puts his heart and soul and lots of time into our courses and us to help us develop into people who will be job seekers and who can work. We can take what we learn here into any career. Although I really appreciate this program, my passion is animals; I would like to study marine biology or zoology in college. “
Faraji: I’m not sure what I want to study in college, but I know I definitely want to do something in the energy field because I like what I do here.”
The two students described their final senior projects:
Faraji: “I am building a window farm which I found out about at windowfarm.org. I will use recycled bottles and hang them suspended inside a class window. I will use a hydroponic system as a grow media and start to grow plants; then I will take them down to the greenhouse. Window farms can help people to have fresh vegetables.
Christian: “I am building a water filtration system; it will be a 3 part system where it uses solar energy to charge a battery that will power a UVC light which is germicidal to take out any living contaminants out of the water; then I will use a Brita filter to take out non-living contaminants.
Mr. Menadier’s Message to Teachers
“Any educators who go into a school and have a passion for greening a content area have to learn to be an entrepreneur and focus on whatever they can do to promote that. Right now is a very good time because green is everywhere – even places that are not green are putting things on just to make it seem like they are green. If you are interested in it, now is an ideal time to start a green program or add green to your existing program. And if you are so inclined, there is plenty of grant money out there."
“If the Green Energy Academy can be successful in this old school building built in 1929, in an urban setting, in a district with many low income students, then it can be implemented in any high school, conventional or vocational, where teachers have a passion and commitment to initiate such a program.”