Weybridge kids put energy into green homebuilding

WEYBRIDGE — It’s not unusual for students in this day and age to be warned of the challenges they will face in heating their homes in the future as fossil fuels become more scarce and expensive.
Weybridge Elementary School students are not only being taught about the challenges; they are being asked to become a part of the solution.
Monday saw the Weybridge students, in grades K through 6, present various model homes that they had fashioned out of rudimentary materials with the goal of having them maintain as comfortable an internal temperature as possible in the face of searing heat provided by a lamp. Evaluating their designs were some local luminaries in the energy efficiency world: architect Andrea Murray of Vermont Integrated Architecture; Addison County Relocalization Network member Dick Thodal; and Middlebury College students Andrew Goulet and Ryan McElroy, both of whom are living in one of the college’s Solar Decathlon houses that employ the highest standards of energy efficiency.
The “green engineering” assignment was led by award-winning Weybridge Elementary teacher Joy Dobson. Last year she was honored with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, and she is one of only 55 educators nationally who serve on an expert team that identifies and vets high-quality resources in support of the Next Generation Science Standards. Dobson said the Weybridge students were enthusiastic about the energy project.
“They have really taken this on, and a lot of them mentioned they didn’t have enough time,” she said.
For the project, the children broke into multi-age teams to construct home designs exclusively out of the following materials: masking tape and Scotch tape, poster board, cloth, transparencies (for windows), tinfoil, felt, construction paper, foam sheets, shredded paper, glue and popsicle sticks.
For each student team, the goal was the same: Design the model home in a manner that would maintain the internal temperature of the home as consistently as possible when exposed to heat from a lamp. Students could use the construction materials as they saw fit. They could cover the roof of their home with tinfoil, border the interior walls with foam sheets and paper scraps for insulation, use poster board to fashion awnings or overhangs for shade, and design in as many windows and doors as they wanted.
Each model was roughly the size of a pastry box, with individual architectural flourishes.
Once they had finished their models, each project was subjected to six minutes of light from a heat lamp. Using a probe thermometer, teams measured the internal temperature of their homes with no heat exposure, and then at intervals of two, four and six minutes under the lamp.
Invariably, the teams that employed the most successful insulation and architectural techniques had homes showing the least variance in temperature.
One by one, the teams of three to four students paraded up to the head of the class to report their findings, explain their construction decisions and at-times candidly convey any arguments that might have occurred along the way.
“We all worked well together and were flexible in our thinking,” said Mason Kaufmann, a 6th-grader.
That teamwork produced a home resembling a Japanese pagoda, with an arched roof and exaggerated eaves. The students coated the roof with tin foil to repel light and heat. They used felt to make the abode weather-tight and stoked the interior with a generous amount of paper to serve as insulation. They made sure the exterior walls were of a light color, because dark colors soak up heat.
The team’s efforts were rewarded by the fact that their model home actually lost 0.2 degrees in temperature after it had been exposed to six minutes under the lamp, according to the group’s field study.
“We did minimal openings — one window, one door — so there would be less places for temperature change,” team member Cammy Kutter, also a 6th-grader, said.
“Inside, it’s pretty much like a pillow,” Kaufmann said.
Murray was impressed.
“It shows that something functional can also be beautiful,” Murray told the team.
Of course not all of the designs were as successful. Teams that advanced designs with flat roofs, minimal insulation, multiple openings and no exterior tinfoil recorded interior temperature increases of 4 degrees, in some cases, after six minutes under the lamp.
The children clearly had fun playing with their roof designs. Some teams proposed open-air pitched roofs to allow air to circulate in the attic area while providing shade. One team fashioned a rounded, barn-like roof.
Students realized that southern exposure would maximize sunlight for their homes, were they to be built at full scale outdoors.
It should be noted that all teams benefitted from some fine tutelage prior to taking on their engineering tasks. Rich Wolfson, Middlebury College Benjamin F. Wissler Professor of Physics, had previously spoken to the students about the sun. They specifically learned about the size of the sun as compared to that of the earth, the distance from the sun to the earth, the interior and atmosphere of the sun, sunspots, and the sun as a source of energy.
In addition to being an accomplished architect, Murray is Visiting Lecturer in Architecture at Middlebury College and lead faculty adviser to its Solar Decathlon team, which every other year takes part in an international competition to design energy-efficient homes. Last week, Murray showed students house designs that had been modeled to different climates. She was pleased to see the students incorporate some of the techniques they had been shown last week.
“More importantly, they are going to go home and speak with their parents (about their projects),” Murray said. “They are the ones who are going to effect change. They are going to say, ‘Hey, mom and dad, if it’s really cool near this window, what should we do about it?’ They are our hope for the future.”
McElroy and Goulet were also impressed with the students’ architectural ideas. The two college students had given the children a tour of the Solar Decathlon house in which they are residing.
“I was very impressed with some of the questions and their ability to change their designs during the (building) process,” McElroy said.
“I don’t even remember being aware of what insulation was at that age,” Goulet said with a chuckle. “There is a lot of promise.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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