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In a school featuring ‘stewardship’ learning, solar array will be the newest teaching tool

Bluestone Elementary principal Peter Norment shows off the school’s geothermal tube display — one of several energy and environment stewardship tools the school has for students. (Photo by Eric Gorton)

By Eric Gorton, senior contributor

Shortly after Bluestone Elementary School opened in 2017, third grade students buried milk containers on the school grounds.

A few months later, they dug up those coated cardboard single-serve milk cartons to see how much they had decomposed. What they found were mostly intact containers, said principal Peter Norment.

The learning didn’t stop there. With the knowledge that milk cartons tossed in the trash eventually take up space in landfills, the students lobbied school leaders for a solution and the school was later equipped with milk dispensers.

“We’re one of the only schools on the East Coast that has a milk dispenser,” Norment said, noting the students’ action not only reduced trash, but also food waste.

“As a school we feel like it’s part of our job to teach kids stewardship of the planet,” Norment said.

The building’s inventory of stewardship teaching tools will grow this year when solar panels are added to the roof. School officials hope the rooftop array will generate enough electricity to power the school without having to purchase electricity from the Harrisonburg Electric Commission, which is paying for the project through a grant. In addition, the project will be built in a way that will inform both students and visitors about the benefits of solar energy.

“If they told me I was getting them tomorrow, I’d be happy,” Norment said.

It won’t happen that soon, but the installation could happen as soon as this fall.

The school system recently completed the first step of a two-step process to choose a contractor when it asked interested builders to submit their qualifications and received three responses. After reviewing the submissions and interviewing the contractors, a selection committee requested proposals from two that it deemed best suited for the job, said Craig Mackail, the school district’s chief operating officer, in an email.

Solar tubes and a louvered ceiling are among the energy features Bluestone Elementary already has. (Photo by Eric Gorton)

The proposals will include cost estimates and are due in August. The search committee will review those, conduct another round of interviews and then make a recommendation to the city school board, Mackail said. That company will be required to present their proposal to the school board at an upcoming school board meeting.

If the school system doesn’t like any of the proposals, the process will begin again.

Contractors have estimated the project will take about six weeks to complete, Norment said, but supply chain issuescaused by high demand for solar systems could cause some delay.

Norment said a lot of companies could do the installation. 

“The question is, who can do it and make it educational and make it accessible both to our students and to the larger community,” he said.

Specifics on how the system will be educational will depend on the builder, Norment said. Ideas have included a dashboard in the school showing relevant statistics, software that could be used inside and outside classrooms and a display on the ground where students and others could experiment.

The most important concepts students will learn, Norment said, are how solar technology works and what impact it has.

He envisions students collecting data from the power produced by the panels, analyzing the data and learning how the power generation varies depending on weather conditions, the time of the year and other factors. He also would like students to be able to compare Bluestone’s energy usage to energy usage at other schools.

“Ultimately, I would like them to be able to do something with that data,” he said. “When students work on projects, I want it to be meaningful, I want it to relate to their lives. I would like them to have a say in what they do with that information, but I could envision them educating the community about the benefits of solar and being able to use their data to demonstrate that.”

The forthcoming solar array will be the latest energy-conscious addition to the building. The school’s design netted Charlottesville-based VMDO Architects three awards during Bluestone’s first year in operation.

Among the features are louvered ceilings that reveal ductwork, pipes and electrical wiring, which help to teach about the mechanical systems needed to operate any such building. The school also has solar tubes and large windows that, even on cloudy days, brighten the school with natural light from outside and reduce the amount of electricity needed to operate electric lights. A geothermal heating and cooling system has 70 wells drawing water from 500 feet underground. Students can touch two of the tubes, listen to the water rushing through them and read about how they work in a display in one of the halls.

Norment estimates the school uses anywhere from a third to a quarter of the energy used by a traditional elementary school.

While the projects students do may not exactly align with the content on Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests, Norment says the experience they get will help them.

“What we have found,” he said, “is that if we create authentic learning opportunities for students that are based in the real world with something that relates to them, they will perform on those assessments even if you’re not specifically teaching for that assessment.”

Bluestone Elementary, which opened in 2017, has numerous features that stress environmental and energy conservation and stewardship. (Photo by Eric Gorton)

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