Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Video in the Classroom: Accelerated Learning for all of us when students share their discoveries in environmental science

Tonight we at Solar CITIES are celebrating the publication of Andy Posner's Fuel Cell Video! Andy, as many of you know, is a Solar CITIES founding board member and Tree Hugger contributor and his Fuel Cell video has started to be promoted by major environmental organizations.

Heck, I can remember when Andy first cottoned to the idea of using multi-media to represent his passion for environmental science.

When Andy Posner was still an undergraduate at CalState Northridge in 2003 he used to ride his bicycle all the way down to UCLA to audit my Global Environmentalism Seminar with his friend Danny Barth, who was enrolled in the class. In my UCLA seminar, the third part of the interdisciplinary Global Environment Class run every year as a freshman cluster by Keith Stolzenbach , Randall Crane, Richard Turco, and Gregors Hodgson, I demanded of the students that their final project be a multi-media report depicting the kind of environment they would like to live in. During class labs they were assisted in mastering video and audio editing programs like Adobe Premiere and Final Cut Pro, and asked to write scripts that were technically accurate (reflecting the environmental science they were learning) but emotionally engaging and narratively compelling. In essence they were to take what they were learning and follow the dictum of the Pulitzer Prize winning scientist Rene Dubos (who is credited with inventing "Think Globally, Act Locally", and whom I spoke with at his St. John the Divine Church lecture on urban ecology when I was in high school) : "Creating a Desirable Future Requires more than foresight; IT DEMANDS VISION."

The beauty of audio-visual technologies, I taught my students, is that they give us the ability to share our vision. Visually. And now, with non-euclidean interactive multi-media, they enable us to demonstrate our foresight with five senses! (what, you've never licked your computer screen, inhaled the sweet aroma of your overclocked CPU burning up? Okay, okay, THREE senses -- with a dual-shock controller -- but five senses is coming soon, and it sounded better, "foresight with five sense", nice and alliterative, so I couldn't resist!)

Andy trekked all the way to UCLA, and did all the homework in a class he would never get formal credit for, because we offered the chance to learn environmental science with an interactive audio-visual-tactile twist that encouraged students to en-vision and embed the vision of their own eutopia so it could be shared with the world. And that was before You Tube!

A couple of years later, while studying abroad in Granada, Spain, Andy and Danny came to intern with us at the Wadi Environmental Science Center built in an olive grove in the desert on the Alexandria Desert Road between Cairo and the Mediterranean Sea. There I was continuing my mission to bring multi-media based science education to impoverished Egyptian youth, working with friends from iEARN, the International Education and Resource Network.
While their visit was brief it was impactful. Having two former students of mine come all the way from California and Spain to share their experience and enthusiasm for learning film-making as an integral part of science education helped galvanize a group of Egyptian children and teenagers from villages and urban slums to produce local award winning documentaries on the environmental issues they faced. One of those videos, called "Protect the Nile" was later taken by the kids themsleves to present at a UNESCO conference in Sharm El Shaykh and to the World Water Conference in Mexico.

It was during the making of that video that we met the young iEARN youth instructor Mahmoud Dardir who, equally inspired by the vision of giving the kids on their personal environmental justice mission a face and a voice and a chance to tell things their way, became one of Solar CITIES founding members and coordinators. Later, when Andy came back to Egypt for the second time with his fiance Michele Finnel to make his own personal documentary about the Solar CITIES work, he interviewed Mahmoud and put this young Egyptian from the poor village of Abu Nimrus, onto the world stage on Youtube.

The point of all this is just this:

The glamour of Hollywood and TV, much of which obtains from the power of giving personal perspectives on the world the specular (and spectacular) leger-de-main of focussed framing, has long attracted some of the best and brightest minds. But it has too often put them in the service of telling stories and delivering images that encourage us to continue exploiting our resources in an unsustainable fashion merely to amp up and sustain our status.

Meanwhile, serious minds studying science and engineering and political science have been discouraged from mixing the arts into their studies, as though the zeitgeist conspirators somehow knew that you can truly divide and conquer by cleaving the arts and the sciences in twain.

I have always been a champion of giving environmental science students with a passion for advocacy the opportunity to learn multi-media production techniques in my science classes and that is why I am so psyched and proud of Andy for reaching a large audience with his videos, each one better than the last as he grows in the art of film-making put to the service of environmental science.

Back when I taught Biospherics (an amalgam of chemistry, biology and environmental science) at Crenshaw High School in South Central Los Angeles in 1989, I brought my ghetto students on weekends to the Beverly Hills Community Access Television to learn how to bring their textbooks to life with our "Melodic-Mnemonics: Science Education thru Music Video" program. One of those students, Robert Jones, is now a television producer in California, another, Damian, worked on the special effects and animation for the film Godzilla (he used to animate dinosaurs in my biology class!)

Throughout the 90s we went on to build the D.E.M.M.O. Productions Program (Digital Engineering for Multi-Media Occupations) training inner-city science and vocational students (mostly so called "gang kids") how to "give up the real" , using dramatic storytelling techniques to give marginalized kids a voice and an opportunity to interpret their discoveries in science in their own way.

This program, begun at Jefferson High School in the Harlem of Central Los Angeles, culminated in a program for at risk youth at Hollywood High where, in partnership with Universal Studios, Paramount Pictures, Jet Propulsion Labs, NASA and the U.S. Army, we built a small production studio out of recycled movie sets where at-risk youth could make films about their future participation in space missions and the possible creation of "Marsville" - a eutopian sustainable community on Mars (part of an ongoing NASA education program) that demands students understand the environmental biospherics of the earth intimately before attempting anything as ambitious as terraforming our dead and inhospitable sister planet.

In all these programs working with youth, particularly at-risk youth who must survive in compromised and degraded environments, the combination of dramatic storytelling technology and serious study of environmental issues has proven to be a winner.

When formerly disenfranchised young men from the ghetto stop hanging out with gang bangers and drug dealers and start turning their homes into eco-homes, and when they start sharing their vision and achievements on youtube, like my former multi-media student Al Silva, who formed the organization "Solar South Central" with his friend Ramon Navarro, and edit their videos in a self-built solar powered production studio, you know the times they are a changin'!

Now that we have youtube and blogspot and twitter and a host of technological assets for getting the word out about what kind of desirable future YOU want, we should be able to fix things here on Earth in short order.

No longer can one say, as former Senator Paul Simon said to me in Damascus, Syria when he was promoting his book "Tapped Out, The Coming Water Crisis" years ago,

"Fuel Cells as a source of domestic electricity and fresh water generation? Never heard of that! We politicians depend on young people like you who understand technology to advise us on such things and nobody in Washington that I know has ever talked about such applications for fuel cells! As far as those of us in Washington representing you know, fuel cells are only things being planned for automobiles. I would love to learn more about the applications you brought up in my lecture."

While at that time I had to physically pull a demonstration fuel cell (Skip Staats' Eco-Soul unit) out of my backpack (to the consternation of the Syrian Security Guards, who thought it was a bomb) to show the Senator what a regenerative unitary fuel cell looks like and how it works, a young person like Andy Posner today can now simply put a compelling video on you tube and send his senator a link via email.

Seeing is believing. Soon, with integrated physics engines and simulation in our presentations, we will be able to invite people to safely walk up to the virtual fuel cell power station and try it out for themselves, and view the visual affadavit that proves that it also exists and works in the real world.

Thank you Andy, for spending the time to document and share your discoveries, inspiring others to bring film-making into science classes, and most of all, congratulations, again, for getting your work discovered and out to a larger audience!

1 comment:

Andy said...

Thank You, T.H., for recognizing my paltry contribution! I too am enthralled by the possibilities afforded by youtube, inexpensive hardware and editing software, and cheap bandwith. In fact, I will be lugging my camcorder along with me this weekend as Mike and I travel to New Orleans for a conference put on by the Clinton Global Initiative. While there, we hope to document some of the rebuilding that is going on in New Orleans. After we turn Rhode Island into the Germany of the United States--a small state with a supposedly poor solar resource can and should become a solar city, creating jobs, clean air, and a robust economy--we plan on going to New Orleans, South Central and other economically depressed areas, and transform them through energy efficiency, green jobs, solar pv and solar thermal, cottage industries, etc. That is our vision.

We discussed this morning the possibility of calling ourselves Solar Cities. I know you had mentioned the idea before, and Mike and I (You have to meet Mike--he's a great guy!) are very interested in it. Here's our idea: we want to create a for-profit environmental consulting company (let's call it We will make a lot of money by consulting businesses and municipalities on how to save energy (my expertise) and how to save water (Mike's expertise). We already have a large company that does environmental engineering (they are called Orin Group) interested in teaming up with us. Now, you might be thinking, "what about the poor?" Well, that's the real goal here. Sure, as a for-profit consultancy we'll be reducing carbon emissions, but the real goal is to include in our articles of incorporation a clause that says that a certain percent (say 20%) of our profits go into our non-profit ( Our non-profit is going to focus on green job training, advocacy and micro-credit lending for residential solar as ways of creating jobs, stimulating economies and creating pathways out of poverty. We also expect to team up with you and the work you are doing in Germany and Cairo and Guatemala, such that there will be an international component to our work as well.

The reason we want to start in the U.S. is that we want to show the rest of the world that 1) we have our poor, too and 2) we can be leaders on the issues of poverty and climate change, rather than the principle causes of it. We envision creating "sister neighborhoods." Where a 2 KW solar system might be all that is needed in South Providence, a 125 watt system might be all that is needed in the Zabaleen community. We hope to provide both. We are really excited about micro-credit opportunities as well--can the solar hot water systems you are building spur an industry, so that instead of relying on grants, you could have investing in the systems, and the beneficiaries would pay back the systems over time?

These are the kinds of things we are working on here. The great thing is that we are working in the poorest communities of Providence, while at the same time we are roaming the halls of power. We are passionate, idealistic, realistic and ready to make big changes. Everyone that meets us seems ready to answer the call. In fact, People's Power and Light (look them up), a local non-profit, offered to partner with us as well. Oh, and we are working on a paper that we hope to publish, that is identifying all the externalities avoided by solar pv (mercury, sulphur, water saved, lower compliance costs for clean air act, etc), and based on that we are going to recommend a much more robust rebate for solar in Rhode Island. We expect to lobby the state legislative with that paper!

Time to make some big change!!!