By Chuck Lawton
There was a nervous energy in Mr. Le Blanc’s classroom on the morning of March 10th. Select students of his 8th grade class would soon be taking a city bus down to one of Milwaukee’s convention centers to attend the 8th annual Green Energy Summit. It’s a day that students from all over Milwaukee’s Public School system will be attending, but Le Bl anc’s class and a few 7th grader’s from one of Milwaukee’s growing K-8 schools will be the only non-high school students there. It’s an experiment of sorts to see the impact the summit can be on a younger class of students. I tagged along to see how this would turn out.

The Milwaukee Public School system is like most urban school districts, facing funding problems, a high dropout rate and low literacy rates. Educators are frequently asked to create a quality curriculum without the tools to make truly engaging lessons. And the administration seek partnerships with private businesses as a way to bridge that gap.

Many educators and schools rise to the task. My neighborhood K-8 school, Trowbridge Street School of Great Lakes Studies where my 4-year-old son is a student, is a great example. Thanks to our proximity to Lake Michigan, there is a growing industry in the Milwaukee area around fresh water studies. Hoping to prepare its students for careers in this field, Trowbridge is aligning their curriculum around fresh water science and science in general. In this light, the partnership between Trowbridge and the organizers at the Green Energy Summit were a good fit and thus this experiment was born.

Arriving at the convention center, we found a panel discussion already underway. The students filed into an auditorium to catch the second half of a talk by C. S. Kiang, Chairman of the Sustainable Development Technology Foundation and founding Dean of the College of Environmental Sciences in Beijing. Speaking with a thick accent that nobody was sure if the students from Mr. Le Blanc’s class could focus on, he talked about the role China is playing in developing and deploying new green technology, creating low carbon community standards and cooperation with between Eastern and Western countries with a focus on cultural differences. During the Q&A for that panel, the Trowbridge students left to explore the hands on exhibits.

Mr. Le Blanc’s class were instructed to disperse and explore the booths, talk with vendors and ask questions about why their technology, solution or presentation matters with regards to green technology. This was all in preparation for a series of presentations each student will be making to tell their classmates about what they discovered. Dutifully, each student went about their business, collecting handouts and taking notes. There were other students at the summit as well, representing high schools from all over the MPS district milling about. And while they were predominately preoccupied with the pastry table, the 7th and 8th grade kids from Mr. Le Blanc’s class roamed the summit floor, engaging exhibitors and looking for the coolest green tech.

And there was plenty to see! The first of a few stand outs was the interactive exhibit put on by the Working Bikes Cooperative. They repurpose donated bicycles for the developing world, driving water pumps or generating electricity. The students eagerly hopped up on converted stationary bikes, pedaling to generate electricity which powered a turntable and speakers playing some Bob Marley. Another bike drove a pump delivering water up into a reservoir. There were wind and solar power exhibits, electric cars that kids to get inside of and plenty of information about the regional green-tech degree programs offered by colleges and universities in the area.

SUN Project model illustrating cellular mechanics (Image: Chuck Lawton)
One of my favorite exhibits was by the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE). Their SUN Project (Students Understanding eNergy) help visualize cellular respiration and photosynthesis through hands-on models of cellular and molecular elements that they developed internally. Much of it was over my head but the project, which melds ebook learning and rapid prototyping, was a fantastic example of the direction education is moving as new technologies enable educators to create exciting ways to illustrate and visualize complicated concepts.

At the end of the day, we walked back to the bus, comparing notes on how well we thought the day had gone. The students, clearly excited about their field trip were buzzing with a different kind of energy. Talk quickly shifted back to the concerns of 7th and 8th graders, but a the same time I was impressed. Each clutched their green tote bags that the event handed out, stuffed with handouts and notes from the things they saw that day.

A few weeks later, Mr. Le Blanc invited me back to Trowbridge to see the students give their presentations. While they all got the gist of each of their topics, several of the students really stood out and demonstrated a deeper understanding of what the event and the exhibit they decided to report on was all about. One student talked about a windmill component manufacturer and classroom discussion quickly shifted to generating your own electricity with small-scale windmills on rural properties. Another summarized C.S. Kiang’s talk about China’s green energy initiatives including a description contrasting the East-West philosophies of eco vs. ego, at least as well as an 8th grade student could.

All of these students were engaged, both through out the day at the summit and through their presentations. As a model for how schools can partner with events like this, it was a resounding success, especially at the 7th and 8th grade level. I’m not so naive to say that their attendance at the Green Energy Summit will set them down any career path. Yet as the school year ends and many of these kids move off to high school, this event may inform some of their decisions about the importance of green energy technologies and environmentalism in general. And who knows, they may decide that career in green tech is exactly what they want to do.

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