A sustainable future

Calley Smith, 11, of Mount Jackson, demonstrates using the chemical energy of an apple to conduct electricity during the sixth grade science fair held Thursday evening at North Fork Middle School in Quicksburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

QUICKSBURG — In preparation for a night of presentations at North Fork Middle School in Quicksburg, sixth grade students in John Woods’ science classes did more than sum up a semester of project-based learning on renewable energy sources. They also looked to the future.

At a station with a battery compass, a hand generator and a motor, Nick Foltz, 11, was testing the different effects that a D battery and a 9-volt battery would have on a needle gauge.

Lance Dorman, Keegan Dougherty and Calley Smith, all 11, demonstrated how the chemical energy inside an apple could be generated into mechanical energy when conducted through a large zinc nail and a thin copper wire.

They rehearsed explanations of what they had learned so far this school year, and troubleshot when experiments didn’t go as planned.

Coordinating it all, under the guidance of Woods, was 11-year-old Kylene Franklin.

Kylene Franklin,11, of Quicksburg, holds a volt meter while she checks the energy created by a wind turbine during the sixth grade science fair held Thursday evening at North Fork Middle School in Quicksburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

“I had to learn a lot of this,” she said. “I had to know what was going on to set all these up. ‘Cause if something went wrong, I would have to know how to fix it and how to keep their presentation going.”

The students were still just warming up for the night’s big event, but already their work was generating its own sparks of energy.

It was all part of their answer to a challenge Shenandoah County Public Schools’ Superintendent Jeremy Raley offered schools: “How can we use alternative energy in our schools?”

Woods jumped on the idea.

“I think they [the students] have some sense that we’re burning up the planet,” he said. “Of course I believe that, so they’re going to get that from me.”

Nick Foltz, 11, of Mount Jackson, demonstrates how using the magnetic field created by a battery disrupts his compass during the sixth grade science fair held Thursday evening at North Fork Middle School in Quicksburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

Talking on wind energy, Nick demonstrated how strong winds spin the cardboard blades of turbines the students built and plan to use as examples of how larger, permanent turbines on school property might benefit their school and community.

“You can power wind for anything,” Nick said.

“Wind is automatically renewable, but I prefer solar because it even works at night,” he said. “Because solar panels have like a capacitor in them that stores energy for the night.”

But asked why everyone doesn’t use wind energy, he said he didn’t know.

For now, Woods is glad his students can’t answer questions of why. Because not thinking about the initial cost of beginning renewable energy programs keeps their minds focused on big ideas.

Because in truth, he said, part of the answer is fear of change and fear of renewable energy not projecting a pretty exterior that only masks a society running on fossil fuels.

Wind turbines, he admitted, are kind of an eyesore in areas where they might line a mountainside otherwise unmarked by progress.

But rather than students saying “Ooh, how ugly,'” he suggested. “Rather than having that mindset, which many of them are living with in their homes, I believe they can look at a wind turbine and see it as a symbol. I really believe that. A symbol of energy independence, and we’re going to clean the place up.”

Next semester, his classes will study global warming as part of a unit on water and climate. And if all goes well, they’ll also be able to start planning a net-zero science classroom recycled from a storage building in a now defunct modular space.

Part of the students’ goal Thursday was in applying for a partnership with James Madison University in Harrisonburg, so together the schools can work with area businesses to fund the installation of turbines and solar panels at North Fork Middle.

“Net-zero means it uses no power from the grid,” Woods said. “[It’s] designed net-zero from the beginning, first of all. It starts with design.”

“And that leads to, ‘Why can’t we start thinking in terms of having net-zero schools?'”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com