Sometimes a lesson is so much more than what it appears. A perfect example is the fifth grade project-based unit on renewable energy. Students could have simply learned about solar and wind energy in a textbook, but teachers Margaret Boudreaux, Nicole Engstrom and Christy Talbot had much more in mind. The teaching team planned a powerful lesson complementing the concepts in the book “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by Bryan Mealer and William Kamkwamba.
The book tells the true story of a boy named William Kamkwamba whose ingenuity changes the lives of everyone in his village in Malawi. William used scrap parts to build his own windmill to generate electricity and running water. All he had to inspire his creation was a library book filled with photos of windmills, yet he was able to generate power.
At Episcopal, Mrs. Engstrom introduced students to a dynamo flashlight. Students had to take the gadgets apart and determine how they function. As the students disassembled the flashlights, their natural curiosity was peaked and there was excitement in the room. Later in the lesson, Mrs. Engstrom and the students spent time outdoors harnessing the sun. Students used tiny solar panels to collect solar energy on a bright, sunny December day. The students were rewarded for their efforts when their tiny fans began to spin and their lights began to blink. To round out the lesson, students worked in groups to generate as much energy as possible with their own water wheels and windmills.
The fifth grade renewable energy project showcased the expertise of a variety of experts, including an ExxonMobil chemist and Upper School physics teacher Dr. Xiaoyue Jiang. In addition, Academic Technology Coordinator Betsy Minton assisted with flashlight deconstruction. It was a project-based unit that tapped into the strengths of many.
Throughout each component of the lesson, the teachers found ways to relate the project back to William Kamkwamba’s own experience. As students explored the dynamo flashlight, Mrs. Engstrom reminded them that William used a similar method for generating electricity. As students explored the scientific concepts involving renewable energy, there was an underlying reminder that they can solve problems and make the world a better place. Even if the young students don’t realize it now, the lesson fits well within the framework of an educational institution that encourages students to ask questions, delve deeper and learn more while focusing on the beneficial impacts one person can have on others.
Like William Kamkwamba, Episcopal fifth graders are tomorrow’s leaders. William’s story has become an inspiration for many. Now the boy who couldn’t finish high school because of his family’s lack of funds has graduated from Dartmouth College. He has served as a TED Speaker and a Global Fellow with ideo.org. He is proof that anyone can make a difference. Just imagine what these fifth graders can do!
Episcopal has a tradition of encouraging environmental stewardship. Click here to read more about environmental education efforts. To read about the fifth grade planting project at the Bonnet Carre spillway, click here.
Happy Earth Day!