Teachable FREAKIN’ Moments



Responding to a new report that found the term “global warming” motivated people more than the term “climate change”, a blog in the New Yorker entitled “Scientists Consider New Names For Climate Change” spoofs that “leading scientists are recommending replacing it with a new term: “You will be burnt to a crisp and die.” Amping up the fear factor seems to be the goal, since it's a great motivator—at least for some people.

But others are taking the “let’s get everyone pumped up about the future!” approach. The seven-minute Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways video (above) definitely fits this second category. My first thought was “I’ll bet science teachers will love this!”

The video is edgy, hip—though I haven’t confirmed this with any middle school students—and packed with science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the overlapping quad of disciplines that make up STEM.

The brainchild of Scott and Julie Brusaw of Sagle, ID, Solar Roadways has received two phases of funding from the US Federal Highways Administration. The Brusaws aimed to raise $1,000,000 to help them move into the production phase. To date, through their Indie GoGo fundraising effort, they’ve raised $1,702,673

The vision the Solar Roadways team put forth is ambitious, grandiose and utopian.  If all roads and parking lots in the U.S. were solar, we’d produce three times more energy than we need!

They envision that:

 [Electric vehicles] will be able to charge from parking lots and driveways with energy from the sun [instead of fossil fuels] and after a roadway system is in place, mutual induction technology will allow for charging while driving.

And they claim that Solar Roadways has the potential to reduce greenhouse gases by 75% and treat storm water runoff, to boot!

Too good to be true?  Maybe. But if you are looking for ways to get kids excited about science and technology…and even (gasp!) math, plus plant seeds in their minds for possible new career pathways that don’t even yet exist, have them check out the Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways videos. Then have them come up with a list of opportunities—and challenges—that solar roadways present.

Students should obviously be encouraged to be skeptical of the claims and to “do the math” themselves, asking critical questions about what would really be involved with deploying the vision. Advanced students—perhaps as part of their performance assessment relating to specific Next Generation Science Standards—may be able to roughly calculate how much energy and what materials would be required to manufacture the glass hexagons out of recycled glass, or the various solar cells, LEDs, and microprocessor components. 

Other students may be intrigued by the feature that would allow for snow-free and ice-free streets and parking lots. Where would the melted ice water go? How would the heating elements work? How would the electronics be protected from water?

Some schools can piggyback their own teachable moments, such as the Mt. Diablo Unified School District in the East Bay area. Thanks to a successful bond measure,  the district has installed 28,000 solar panels at sites all over the district that generate 12.1 megawatts, supplying 92% of the electricity used by the district. Its PG&E electric bill has shrunk from  $3.82 million in 2009-10 to $687,624 in 2012-13.

The district also uses VRF—Variable Refrigerant Flow—systems which use refrigerant as a heating and cooling medium. (The technology has been used in Japan since the 1980s.) How does this technology work? How much energy is being consumed or saved?  Over the course of the school year when are heating and cooling needed.

Good teachers always look for ways to weave a local examples of national and global issues into the curriculum.  In my forthcoming book, Climate Smart & Energy Wise (Corwin Press), I highlight a number of schools and teachers who are doing amazing work to help increase student literacy about climate and global change and related energy issues.

And right now, NCSE is working with a group of climate educators across the country to help unpack the “freakin’ teachable moments” in the National Climate Assessment, which is a potential treasure trove of “actionable science”—and new career opportunities—for educators and learners to dive into.

Teachable moments are everywhere, and in my next blog post I’ll dive into the new EPA coal power plant regulations. Stay tuned.

Short Bio

Mark McCaffrey is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.