Clean- tech high

Students at Laguna Creek High take green technology lessons

Left to right: Christy Jackson, Rebecca Paiz and Mandie Dale measure and clip the PVC pipe.

Left to right: Christy Jackson, Rebecca Paiz and Mandie Dale measure and clip the PVC pipe.

Photo By Sena Christian

Full disclosure: The author’s sister works at Laguna Creek High School.

The students had been waiting a long time for this day. Enough with the lectures, writing assignments and guest speakers, the 30 teenagers in the Green Energy Technology Academy at Laguna Creek High School in Elk Grove were ready to put their knowledge to the test with a hands-on project. Their assignment for the day: Assemble a solar cart.

Of course, they may have needed a bit more guidance as they broke into groups of four, gathered up materials—5-foot long PVC pipes, clippers, rulers—and began their work.

“Are you writing down that we’re hitting people with sticks?” asked Bobbie Bray, 15, who then explained to SN&R that nuclear fusion comes from the sun and can be used to power items that need electricity. After students assemble the cart’s frame, they’ll add a battery to the bottom and a solar panel on top. Once completed, the solar cart will be able to power anything below 400 watts, like a radio or television. Through this project, students learn how to convert solar energy into a source of clean power for their daily lives.

This is the academy’s inaugural year, and the school currently offers only the clean-technology science class; when the program goes full swing, hopefully in the spring semester, students will take English and math classes together, geared toward green energy.

Bray signed up for the academy “because it’s something new and we’re going to have fun with it.”

This past summer, teachers at the high school learned that the California Department of Education had additional money to fund new academies. English teacher Erik Olson asked science teacher Eric Johnson if he’d want to help develop a clean-technology program, and he asked science teacher Angie Friedrich to coordinate. Johnson, who said he’s always been interested in the technological side of alternative energy, wholeheartedly agreed.

In the span of three weeks, the group wrote up a grant proposal, recruited partners—OptiSolar, California Energy Commission, the state architect’s office, Los Rios Community College District and Sacramento State among others—and developed the course curriculum.

Students have already heard from guest speakers, including an engineer with the California Energy Commission, and soon will be taking field trips to visit the SMUD hydrogen-refueling station and perhaps a solar-panel factory. The previous week, the class watched Who Killed the Electric Car?, a 2006 documentary about abandoned efforts to develop battery-electric vehicle technology. Only a few months into the school year, students already seem invested in the academy and its environmental lessons.

“If [solar energy] helps not pollute the Earth and it saves money and saves gas, then it’s good,” said David Momoh, 15.

Programs such as this one may also be beneficial because of the country’s need to build a green-collar workforce and train a new generation of engineers to transition away from fossil fuels into a clean-energy future.

“I figure there’s probably going to be career opportunities in this field pretty soon,” explained Marcos Lopez, 16. “With the economy, the wave of gas prices, and it just seemed interesting. I’d rather not be ignorant about fuel and energy.”

Next year, incoming freshmen in the academy will learn about green building. Sophomores will continue to examine solar and wind energy, juniors will learn about biofuels and hydrogen fuel-cell technology, and seniors will participate in internships and job shadowing.

There are no requirements for enrolling in the academy, and Johnson said that about seven students in the class have below a 1.0 grade-point average, but he believes the academy’s project-based learning might help them turn their academic careers around.

“This is getting their interest,” Johnson said. “There is one guy over there, and right now I see him completely engaged.”

For now, the students are focused on building their solar carts. Max Mendelson, 15, laughed when his team finally cut two pieces of PVC pipes the same length, as required for the assignment. He smiled, leaning down to measure another piece, his long hair flopping down over his eyes, and shared his thoughts on the academy.

“It’s the best part of the day,” he said.