A green new education

Kurt Nelson

The latest report coming out of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), just in case you didn’t hear, wasn’t very good. In short, it says that the worst is yet to come, that it will affect our children’s lives much more than our own, and that climate change will fundamentally reshape life on Earth. Uff da.

Now imagine that you’re a high school student reading this as you sit pondering your future. Should you spend another four years and $100,000 on a college degree, or perhaps consider a two-year program at a local technical college.

Of course, you could choose either option, work hard to earn that diploma, and end up with a couple part-time jobs, living in your parent’s basement. Tough choices in a brave new world.

When I was in high school, I signed up for a semester as an Audio Visual Aid – a student who assists teachers in showing various educational films and filmstrips to their classes. I would deliver the projector and film to the classroom, set up the speakers and screen, thread the film, run the film, rewind it, put it back in the can, etc.

I can only remember seeing two of those films from the back of darkened classrooms.

One was a cheesy sex-ed film for the ‘girls class’ and not worth the effort. The other was a wonderful Frank Capra film titled Our Mr. Sun. It was not only directed by Capra, but written and produced by him as well. I can say without hesitation that this film was the single best learning experience of my entire formal education.

Back to the future (and the possibility of life in the basement).

Learning involves more than mere memory – more than just remembering what the instructor said would be on the exam. To put it another way, understanding the equation that’s written across a chalkboard is always more important than just knowing the answer at the end of it. This is especially true when one graduates from normal questions with straightforward answers into the complex and multifaceted ones facing us today. Questions with formulas not yet written and where the usual answers receive a failing grade.

Wisconsin’s university system is home to an energy education program known as the K-12 Energy Education Program, or KEEP. One of KEEP’s objectives is to integrate energy education across all age groups (kindergarten through 12th grade), and perhaps more importantly, into all course types and curriculum.

Green new deals and “building back better” will likely result in an increase in solar installations on public buildings, hopefully with a focus on our neighborhood schools. Solar on schools is a no-brainer, with perhaps the biggest benefit of school-based renewables being the huge educational opportunity. But the student body also needs a head in the process.

KEEP should receive an infusion of steroids, and the students should be given real-life issues with actual numbers to write on the chalkboard. Actual things to think about and to learn through.

While solarizing schools is an excellent course to take, a class I’d sign up for, energy conservation, is often the low-hanging fruit. It should be mandated that all applicants for renewable energy grants have a current energy audit as a prerequisite.

Students should be given access to the audit, along with all of the school’s power bills (energy usage), and while the civics class is studying the grant-writing process, and the math class is doing the math, the economics class can be crunching the numbers that the debate team will use to discuss the pros and cons of conservation strategies, over those of installing a brand-new shining solar system.

While the school newspaper is documenting the entire progress, what used to be known as the photography class (or club) can be producing ongoing video documentaries on the school’s website, the site that the computer class manages and that provides real-time energy data with the click of a tab.

Don’t get me started on the homework, because it involves home energy audits and renewable energy site analysis – yes, in your backyard!

If you have read any of my other columns in The Reader, you know that I like to end on an important note. Here it is. You, dear reader, are obviously very well read. As such, and as a concerned and caring individual, please consider running for your local school board.

If you really can’t, please get active in the campaign of someone who can, and to whom you can give your full support. Public schools and critical thinking are under attack right now, with those who favor blind belief over thought-filled knowledge gaining control, changing curriculum and “burning” books. The situation is urgent.

Thanks for any and all of your efforts, and of course to all of the educators out there who are inspired by knowledge and by the gift of sharing it.

Kurt Nelson lives in Cornucopia, Wisconsin and has worked for more than 30 years as a solar energy advocate, educator and installer. Now retired, he is still energized by the sun.