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Learning Science, From Concept to Construction

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Washington--As students across the country relaxed during their spring vacation, a group of students from Frank W. Ballou Senior High School here were busy laboring over an ambitious school project to install a solar-heating system they helped plan and design.

During their weeklong break this month, about 17 Ballou students gathered daily in the biology laboratory that was to house the tank containing water heated by radiant energy from the sun.

Under the guidance of four energy consultants, the students drilled through concrete, fitted and welded pipes, and climbed the two-story school building to position a "solar collector" on the roof to trap the sun's energy. They also did the plumbing and fitting required to hook up the hot-water tank, which holds 80 gallons of water heated by passing through the solar collector.

First System to be Completed

Barring any unforseen problems, Ballou's Solar Energy Project, the city school system's first, will be completed this month and will supply enough hot water to heat three science laboratories and an adjacent greenhouse.

The construction work represented the second of three phases of the project, which began in November and has involved nearly 100 students. School officials hope the project will yield benefits long after the participants have graduated.

Ballou's principal, Dennis C. Johnson Jr., points out that the project is important because without such special efforts the school's ability to "attract" students would be seriously impaired. Ballou is a science and mathematics magnet school located in the southeast corner of the city.

Such projects are also highly regarded by major corporations interested in forming partnerships with the public schools, he notes. An alliance between Ballou and the General Motors and Digital corporations is currently in the planning stages, according to Mr. Johnson.

"We want to be at the forefront," Mr. Johnson explained. "We want to show on a small scale that solar energy is efficient, and we want as many of our students involved as possible."

Supported by $7,500 in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, the D.C. Energy Office, and the United Black Front, Ballou's energy project will also lead to several educational workshops on energy conservation for students and the community, according to David R. Cauley of the Anacostia Energy Alliance, the nonprofit community organization that supervised the project.

Other schools in the Washington metropolitan area have installed solar heating systems, Mr. Cauley said, but Ballou's project is the only one that has involved students in designing and constructing the so-lar panels. Eventually, according to both Mr. Cauley and Mr. Johnson, the solar panels' heating capacity will be expanded if the school is successful with future grant proposals.

In addition to the 350 students enrolled in the school's science and mathematics program, the project was open to "all students who had time and interest in learning about another important energy source," according to Mr. Johnson.

Student Contribution

In the project's first phase, about 100 of the school's 2,000 students contributed by drafting the plans; designing the project's logo, posters, and brochure; and, most recently, installing the solar panels and hot-water tank.

Cassie Hines, an 11th grader at Ballou, was one of the 17 students who also contributed their vacation to working on the project. But her involvement began months earlier when she joined a team of nine students that was responsible for drafting the project's blueprints.

Using the school's 18-year-old building plans, she and the other students had to enlarge the floor area of the biology room where the hot water tank is located and correct errors found in the old blueprints. ''We found a lot of mistakes in the original floor plans," she said. ''So we had to come in and change it."

When the solar panels were purchased, Mr. Cauley's consulting firm provided the basic design. "But the details of how they applied to the school building were interpreted and drafted in the blueprints by the students," he explained.

On the day the hot-water tank was installed, Cassie was one of four students who worked in the biology lab and took turns drilling through the three-inch thick concrete floor. But before the first hole was drilled, there were measurements to take and safety instructions to give on handling equipment that none of the students had used before.

Other students crawled through a labyrinth of concrete pillars and copper pipes under the biology lab's floor with blow torches in order to connect the water tank to the existing plumbing system.

At each stage of the process, there were students with cameras recording the activity for a presentation before the city's mayor, school board, and superintendent. John Thayer, a Ballou physics teacher, also filmed the events with a Super 8 video camera.

But Jonathan Black, an 11th grader who did some of the plumbing work for the project, said the ex-perience made him feel like something less than a movie star. "You feel like a construction worker," he said. Once the solar panels are operational, he said, he will be one of the students monitoring the system daily to determine its efficiency.

"This group of kids amazed me with their level of maturity and knowledge and their eagerness," Mr. Cauley said.

With anyone learning something new, he said, there is a gap "between how something is conceptualized and how it is actually accomplished.''

"They asked the right questions and did quite well," he said, adding that adults in workshops he has conducted in the past have not been as eager to do the tasks that Ballou's students have successfully completed.

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