Learning Off the Grid! The beginning…

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-by Greg Neil, Grade 5 Math/Science

Editors note: Greg’s classroom was just featured on Canadian Geographic’s the Energy Diet Challenge. One of Greg’s students recently wrote a letter to the editor of the Calgary Herald. To read that letter, click here.

As a science teacher at the Calgary Science School, I am always looking for ways to engage my students in rich, authentic learning experiences. When planning for the Grade 5 Electricity Unit, I was looking for ways to move beyond the basic outcomes associated with this unit and to tie our learning to a more meaningful project that promotes ethical citizenship and environmental stewardship.

Any conversation about Electricity in Alberta, usually comes back to the fact that most of our power is generated by coal (66%), which produces significant amounts of greenhouse gases and that we all need to do more in order to reduce our energy demands. Following the curriculum, this often means teaching students about turning off lights, replacing inefficient lighting with more energy efficient bulbs and purchasing more efficient appliances. Students also learn the basics of some renewable technologies such as wind and solar, but rarely get deep into these subjects. I decided to focus our learning on what we could do at school in order to reduce the amount of energy we use in the classroom. Taking it to the next level, I wanted to explore the idea of taking our classroom right off the grid! This led me to some research on potential sources of energy that we could use to supply our electricity needs. I looked into solar powered systems, a portable wind turbine and eventually settled on a bicycle-powered generator for our classroom. The question we posed to students was, “What would we need to do, in order to take our classroom off the Electrical Grid?”

Electricity is an abstract concept to most students who simply flick a switch and “voila”, they have all the power they need. In order to make this project successful and to meet our objectives, we need our students to develop a more concrete understanding of electricity and specifically about how much electricity we use in our classroom each day. I purchased a number of Power Meters, which we plugged into every electrical outlet in the classroom and we have used a variety of techniques to measure the use of other loads such as lighting and our LCD projector. With a more complete understanding of how much energy we use each day, we can begin reducing our electrical consumption to a point where it will be possible to generate all of our electricity from the bicycle generator. At the moment, we have set up and tested the bicycle-powered generator and we are currently collecting classroom data, which will inform the next steps of this project.