Island kids do the math on energy efficiency and solar electricity

By Martha Shaw (Martha’s Vineyard, MA)

If every house on the Island were as energy efficient as the ones made by Lynn Gatchell’s fifth grade class at the Tisbury School, people could save a lot of money. That’s the lesson that Mrs. Gatchell hopes her students learned when they divided up into construction teams to build miniature model homes.

“I’m trying to teach them that we can become much less dependent on the ‘extension chords’ that bring power to us from the mainland,” said Lynn.

Each team had a $10 budget of play money to build its home, and an 8”x 8” x 12” cardboard box. They could save money by using free materials from a makeshift recycling center. Available for purchase were building materials, including aluminum foil and duct tape at 50¢ per foot, bubble wrap for $3 per foot, and construction paper for 50¢ per sheet. The buildings had to conform to strict building codes concerning windows, ceiling height, and the thickness of insulation.

Upon completion, each dwelling was tested for energy efficiency using ice bags and thermometers that measured temperature change over a two-hour period. Then calculations were made. The students compared the efficiency among various designs and projected the difference in energy usage, and how much that could cost. A few of the better designs yielded a hypothetical net savings of $500 in 10 years, which is not bad for a house that’s just under one square foot.

“The children were very resourceful,” according to their teacher, who masterminded the simulation. “I let them learn through trial and error. Some of them figured out that by layering newspaper and plastic bags, they could keep their houses better insulated. The placement and orientation of the windows to the sunlight also made a big difference. A few of the children experimented with awnings and other innovations.”

Though the project oversimplifies the complexity of designing real houses like those renovated by her son Kyle of KG Construction, Mrs. Gatchell chose the project to make a point. “As an Island we need to be as efficient as possible. The more independent we can be of fossil fuels from the mainland, the better off we are, if and when the cables are down. Whether we look at solar and wind, or whatever, I’m interested in teaching the Island students to think about being more independent.”

Another important part of her curriculum is homework. For one assignment, she asked them to monitor the electric meter and keep a log of how fast it spun whenever they turned on a light, played a computer game or ran an appliance. “I want my students to learn about where energy comes from, how it gets used and what they can do differently to use less,” she said.
At the Chilmark School, teachers Jackie Guzalak and Jack Regan are making the same effort, and it’s paying off. This year two fifth grade students, who go by the name of “Solar Sisters,” received state honorable mention in a national competition sponsored by the National Energy Education Department, and a trip to Washington, D.C. Cape Light Compact helped fund the trip, as well as Menemsha and Chilmark businesses who bought ads in the school’s Energy Fair program. Katy Smith and Lindsay Tocik won their award by collecting data from the Chilmark Community Center’s solar array and recording the amount of solar electricity generated under different weather conditions and air temperatures. With the help of their teachers and local energy educator, Nan Doty, they made charts and graphs of how photovoltaic cells work, and wrote about how various factors affect a photovoltaic cell’s performance. Then they put it all in a scrapbook and sent it off for submission.

“It was really fun,” said Katy, “and we learned how solar works.”

Her best friend Lindsay agreed. “The most exciting part was learning how to do spreadsheets.” If a solar energy competition can make spreadsheets fun to do, then everybody involved in these projects deserves an award.

To find out more about energy efficiency and renewable energy projects on the Island, visit This article is sponsored by the Vineyard Energy Project through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The Vineyard Energy Project promotes sustainable energy choices through education, outreach, and renewable energy projects. The author, Martha Shaw, is a member of the Vineyard Energy Project’s advisory board. The Times publishes these columns as a service to its readers.