Students Take Charge of Renewable Energy Technology with Windfree

By Rudy Tardin

Many middle schools and high schools share similar outdoor features around campus. Grammar schools have playgrounds for the youngsters and high schools have track and fields. Both may have walking paths, basketball courts and eating areas, yet some Chicago-area schools have been adding different features to its campuses—wind turbines and solar panels visible on roofs and freestanding poles. However, these modern pieces of architecture have not come to fruition from the minds of progressive thinking school officials. These are student-developed projects.

Nvate vertical axis turbine solar-wind turbine Windfree by Doug Snower

Credit: frankie_8 freedigitalphotos.net

The company behind the installation of the school wind turbines and solar panels defines youth education in renewable energy as part of its company’s philosophy. Windfree, a wind and solar energy design company, integrates educational programs and workshops into its business model, working with science teachers and students to develop renewable energy projects to be implemented in schools.

“We let the kids and teachers figure out their own project and we guide them through it,” Doug Snower, founder of Windfree, said. “I like to help the teachers as much as I can and provide as much resources for them so they can then take that resource to the classroom.”

Snower, who runs the tutorials, visits about four or five schools each year, usually holding about six or seven workshops for students at each school during the same time period. The length of the process from introducing students to wind and solar power to installing projects can vary by school but can take several months to over a year, according to Snower.

Although Snower states, “the goal is to get something installed at the schools,” he stresses the importance of educating students and putting the power in their hands. During his visits, Snower teaches students about collecting energy data, performing site evaluations, and conducting wind tests.

“It’s about the students leading the project,” Snower said. “Two, three, five, or 10 years down the line, these young kids are going to have more ideas. Sooner or later, they’ll figure out how to hopefully solve some of the disasters we’re faced with.”

Nvate vertical axis turbine solar-wind turbine Windfree by Doug Snower

This is the solar-vertical axis turbine at the Windfree headquarters in Chicago. The turbine powers the headquarters’ parking lot lights and electric cars can plug into the freestanding turbines to charge. Credit: Rudy Tardin

Howie Hill, an environmental studies teacher at Highland Park High School in Highland Park, Ill., helps his senior students develop renewable energy projects as part of their curriculum. With the assistance of Windfree, some of Hill’s students achieved the installation of the school’s first wind turbine on the building’s roof, which Hill says visually shows “how progressive our kids are being” to the community.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we have a wind turbine here at school?’ The students are the teacher. They really developed the whole idea, which made that much more magic,” said Hill.

The wind turbine’s energy connects to the school’s power grid, and students can read the turbine’s output through a monitoring station installed in the science lab, according to Hill. Students can plug different electrical devices into the box to learn about energy readings and perform experiments, which Hill continually uses as an educational tool for incoming students.

“It was an educational experience for the kids. They learned about wind shear, wind speed, cut-in speed, and the pros and cons of vertical and horizontal axis [turbines] when you’re mounting it up on a roof,” Hill said praising the workshops of Snower.

His current group of students is already working on the next project. “They’re excited about the idea of getting solar panels on the roof,” said Hill.

The senior students at Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Ill., successfully installed three wind turbines on its campus, according to Branson Lawrence, an engineering teacher who helped oversee the student projects. Lawrence integrates renewable energy topics into his course curriculum and encourages the development of student projects.

Nvate vertical axis turbine solar-wind turbine Windfree by Doug Snower

The power for the solar-wind turbine that is located in the physics lab at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. Credit: Branson Lawrence

According to Lawrence, two freestanding wind turbines power LED lighting, which provide adequate lighting for security camera systems at night. A hybrid solar panel-vertical axis wind turbine connects to a physics lab that students use to collect data, according to Lawrence, who described how a student used data on a school project to determine how many turbines would be needed to power an entire building.

Snower works with young children at grade schools as well. At Burr Elementary School in Chicago, his company installed a wind turbine and solar panels. Snower taught kids how they can power different classroom items. A wind turbine at Pleasant Ridge Elementary School in Glenview, Ill., helps pump water and provide energy for tools used in an “energy garden,” according to Snower.

“If we’re going to solve our energy problems, we’re going to have to start teaching students and younger generations about energy early so it’s not just a switch they turn on and off and have no idea what’s on the other end of it,” Snower said. “We’re trying to get students to lead the way.”

The world’s energy needs may one day depend on the intellect of today’s youth and Windfree is at the forefront of the sustainable energy technology revolution.

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