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Ask Slashdot: Classroom Eco-Projects Suited To Alaska? 157

First time accepted submitter shortyadamk writes "I just started a new job where I will have to visit many high school science classes and have the students participate in 1-3 day projects regarding sustainable energy and environmental sciences (in order to promote the regional universities' programs). I've looked at a number of the boxed projects available online and many of them are solar projects; my biggest issue with that is that we are in rural Alaska and much of the time I'll be visiting classes will be in the winter (when we have very little sunlight — and even if we did it would be too cold to go and play in). I'm curious if anyone has any ideas or suggestions for demonstrations and projects that can be done in the classroom and do not require sunlight. One other catch is that the project has to be small enough to fit in a suitcase or plastic tote; we don't have any roads connecting the villages so I will have to fly the project from school to school with me."
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Ask Slashdot: Classroom Eco-Projects Suited To Alaska?

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  • Biofuel (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 06, 2011 @11:22AM (#37316320)

    Heat some fresh wood chips in a test tube with a gas burner. Transfer the liquid to a small distiller (the kids already know this one from their dad's shed) and collect the burnable methanole fraction. Use it for a direct methanole fuel cell an charge a RC car.

  • by Khyber ( 864651 ) <> on Tuesday September 06, 2011 @11:24AM (#37316342) Homepage Journal

    Get an LED light and some tiny starter pots and seeds.

    I can help you out with that.

  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <(eldavojohn) (at) (> on Tuesday September 06, 2011 @11:25AM (#37316348) Journal
    Obviously you could pack up a small turbine and multimeter and take it outside and show the kids the power generation. You might even contact the Alaskan wind industries [] asking for a kit to raise awareness in schools.

    Another thought is thermoelectrics via Seebeck and Peltier Effects []. I think you can pick up cheap little thermoelectric kits [] that are horribly inefficient (10%?) but if you could coordinate with the school, you might have access to a heat exhaust or something nearby where you could set up the device and show the kids that you can harvest some of the energy coming off the exhausts. Failing that, you could boil a pot of water and position it over it? If it's cold as hell outside, you might even be able to just push it up against a window?

    Really, it's just be important to get the kids thinking critically about where energy transfer is lost and how it can be harvested. Most importantly I would stress the efficiency analysis so they realize why your little device isn't the answer to all their problems (but with enough research and knowledge they might find a better solution). You know, give them a little lesson on initial cost versus return and figure out how long it would take your device sitting there at that external temperature for you to fully recoup your cost.
  • by RingDev ( 879105 ) on Tuesday September 06, 2011 @11:33AM (#37316480) Homepage Journal

    It's been a while since I learned about Alaska, but don't they have significant methane trapped in peat moss? That could be a good tie in to the methanole fuel.

    Another option would be to get a miniaturized steam engine. People may think they are antiquated, but steam is what generates almost all of the electricity in this country. The heat can come from geo-thermal, nuclear, solar salts, coal, etc... but it all does the same thing: boil water.


  • Genetics (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Mensa Babe ( 675349 ) * on Tuesday September 06, 2011 @11:33AM (#37316490) Homepage Journal
    I suggest diving into the synthetic biology movement. Take a look at the BioBricks Foundation []. Search the Registry of Standard Biological Parts []. Maybe there is something missing that you might contribute. Join iGEM [], the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. It is a worldwide synthetic biology competition aimed mostly at undergraduate university and high school students. Some people there are doing amazing eco-friendly projects. And don't be scared by the recent anti-science hysteria. Genetic engineering in general and synthetic biology in particular is not as hard as people tend to think. It doesn't even has to be too serious. For example, in 2006 the MIT team engineered E. coli to produce a wintergreen scent during exponential phase and a banana scent during stationary phase, known as the "banana-fart" bacteria. Some kids are engineering just amazing DNA to produce bacteria that help to digest pollution, or converts sunlight into energy that is easy to use. There is a lot to be done in synthetic biology and both BioBricks and iGEM are directed towards young people who want to experiment and collaborate, without the need to synthesise everything from scratch. You don't need sunlight to do that and you don't need expensive equipment any more. These days people are sending DNA by email and change it like it was just a computer program - which it is in a sense, but it is software that builds hardware. This is truly amazing stuff and I believe this the future of fixing our planet. We have to help mother nature. And this is the most optimal way to do it - from the ground up. iGEM and BioBricks is a great way for young students to dive into it.
  • Uphill challange (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jellomizer ( 103300 ) on Tuesday September 06, 2011 @11:45AM (#37316606)

    Your problem is actually the countries problem. Green Energy works good in some spots and not all. Solar, Wind, Tidal, Hydroelectric, all have good and bad locations. More portable energy, Coal, Oil, Nuclear. Can be planned for and allocated and distributed anywhere for 24/7 usage, however tends to carry a larger environmental cost (Or just crazy people who fear it blindly like for Nuclear).

    I remember in school an important lesson that most people do not get about environmentalism. Everything you do has a trade-off. How many fish die in those Tidal/Hydroelectric power. How many trees will you need to knock down for you Solar/Wind farm and what do do about night/no wind... There isn't any golden ticket for free energy they all come with a cost. Right now we are seeing the Fossil Fuels have been giving off there costs for too long and is making the problem worse.
    You should be teaching those kids about trade offs, not some magical future tech that will solve all our problems. Explain how to generate electricity how we use different types of energy. How usually when changing one energy to an other there is often a loss to a different form of energy that isn't useful. How to store energy, batteries, flywheels, springs... Heck show them when you stretch a rubber-band it gets warmer, and if you let it contract it gets cooler.
    You need to train kids to be think clearly environmentalism not envionuts and go out wasting more resources to stop all the evils that come up.

  • Re:Biofuel (Score:4, Interesting)

    by elfprince13 ( 1521333 ) on Tuesday September 06, 2011 @12:09PM (#37316810) Homepage
    Mod this man up. The (solid) biofuel-oriented nonprofit I started here in VT began in a high school physics classroom. Don't just get the students involved in the science, get them involved in applying the science in the community. Home Thermal energy use (heating and cooling) is a much more accessible field to get budding environmentally minded scientists+engineers started in than the two "sexy" ones (transportation + electricity), but still takes up a similar proportion of the total energy pie, and I suspect even more than the other two given the locale. Biomass (densified or gasified) makes for a great classroom project. Passive cooling also works well in climates like VT and Alaska, but to pull that off requires a much larger scale than works well in a classroom. You could still do something with insulation and learning about R-values though.

"An open mind has but one disadvantage: it collects dirt." -- a saying at RPI