A School’s Energy Transformation

I rolled up to the entrance of Huonville High School feeling apprehensive. Groups of students sitting on the lawn were giving me odd looks. This was only the second day of my bicycle journey, but already I was grubby and smelly from life on the road and probably looked like a vagrant. It didn’t help that my high-vis vest was covered in black grease smears from when it had fallen onto my bike chain earlier.

I tried to make myself look more presentable before I headed into the front reception, yet the receptionist still seemed unsure whether to sign me in or shoo me from the building.

I was eventually welcomed by a jovial man in shorts and a t-shirt: Jason, the head of science at the school. He led me through the school grounds, talking as we walked. ‘It can be tough motivating the students at a small rural school like this,’ he said. As if to emphasise the point, he stopped to round up a truant student wandering the halls during class time.

Jason led me to an old wooden cottage on the school grounds, which was apparently the heart of this school’s recent transformation. The inside was set up like a modern school classroom, and sitting at a table, he told me a story that spanned the globe; of oil sheikhs and Icelandic presidents, and how one group of students put this small rural school on the map.

A few years earlier a passionate and determined teacher at the school, Nel Smit, had stumbled upon some information about a little-known prize awarded to schools by the United Arab Emirates. Called the Global High Schools Zayed Future Energy Prize, it was set up by the UAE as a tribute to the legacy of their late founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nathan, to drive sustainability solutions in schools. An annual award of US$100,000 was up for grabs.

Nel and a team of students, led by 15 year old Toby Thorpe, put in an application. They made it to the finals, and set off to Abu Dhabi for the award ceremony. The winners would be selected by a jury of international experts chaired by HE Olafur Ragnar Grimson, President of the Republic of Iceland.

Up until then Toby had been in it only half-heartedly. Then suddenly being on the world stage meeting students from around the globe, as well as world leaders in sustainability, something awoke in him. But they didn’t win.

Nel, Toby and the team returned home determined to try again. They took the opportunity to learn from the other finalists and studied the winning school’s design plans. The following year they made it into the finals again with a revised design proposal, and won. US$100,000 was theirs to retrofit their old school building and turn it into a sustainable energy hub.

They installed a large array of solar panels (125 in total), an energy monitoring system, and even a pedal-powered cinema with charging stations. A weather monitoring station on the roof is collecting data in preparation for installing a small wind turbine and a rainwater collection system. They’ve also been replacing the old bank of windows on the north-west wall with a mix of insulated wall panels and more energy efficient double-glazed windows.

And apparently there are more ideas in the pipeline. A whiteboard in the corner is covered in ideas and plans, including LED lights, a bio-digester, and numerous community events they want to hold. The ultimate goal is to turn the building in to a 6 star energy efficient research centre and offer a pilot energy assessment course for year 11 and 12 students.

I was in search of good-news-stories, but Jason seemed determined to paint this as a bad-news-story. Sitting back in his chair with his arms crossed, he described how the project had slowed and little progress had been made lately; key driving personalities, such as Toby and Nel, had graduated or moved to part-time, and new students had had to take the helm. Jason was unsure what would become of the project, and what this building meant for the classes he taught.

But looking around the classroom, I could see that an incredible amount of work had already been done, and by young students at a small rural school. It was remarkable what they’d achieved.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued by what Jason had said. Was the Huon Future Energy Team to be like a shooting star: burning bright but brief? Would the flame be kept alight?

Jason led me outside again and around the outside of the building. Its old wooden weatherboards spoke of its humble origins, and were a stark contrast with the array of solar panels covering the tin roof, and the weather gauge mounted at one end of the gable apex.

Jason was keen to show me another of the school’s projects, and on our way back to the front reception he led me across a quadrangle to where a series of garden beds lay alongside several classrooms. Thick planks of wood formed the walls of the rectangular beds, which were filled with soil and rows of leafy green plants.

Some school students have never seen seeds sprout or vegetables grow before; some rarely ate or even saw fresh produce. In this school ‘kitchen garden’ the students were growing herbs and vegetables and maintaining a worm farm, the work integrated with Jason’s science classes. They were learning firsthand how to care for plants and about the connection between nature and their food supply, while also teaching them healthy eating habits.

It seemed a wonderful initiative, and one Jason was clearly passionate about. With all the public attention that the Energy Hub had received, it was easy to overlook the school’s other great projects.

When it came to sustainability education there were no ‘standard’ projects. The concept had evolved over the years: since the 1972 United Nations Conference in Stockholm, when ‘the Environment’ was launched as a major issue and it began to appear in school subjects such as geography, through to 2008 when sustainability was made a cross-curriculum priority within the Australian school curriculum.

Over this period and after, the focus in Australia shifted from ‘Environmental Education’ to ‘Education for Sustainability’. Community organisations formed to advocate for sustainability education in schools, such as the ‘Australian Association for Environmental Education’, and later the ‘Australian Education for Sustainability Alliance’. Many schools experimented with different sustainability projects, and many community-led programs vied for schools’ attention, such as Landcare, Keep Australia Beautiful, the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, and Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots. Government programs, such as the ‘Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative’ (AuSSI) and the government-funded ‘Sustainability in Schools’ web portal, were created to help schools integrate sustainability into the classroom.

There was undoubtedly still progress to be made. Teachers still often grappled with the wide range of sustainability topics — such as climate change, energy, waste, water, food and biodiversity — and the degree of uptake still often depended on the enthusiasm of principals, teachers, parents and the community.

Despite this, there were now countless examples of sustainability success stories in Australian schools. From students building kitchen gardens like the one here at Huonville, to those carrying out biodiversity audits, installing solar panels, revegetating riverbanks, starting recycling programs, creating interactive nature walks, and organising zero waste lunches, all the way through to students making international headlines like those here with the Huon Future Energy Hub.

Jason returned me to the front reception, where I thanked him for his time and said farewell. Back on my bicycle, my mind kept returning to the school’s Energy Hub, wondering what would become of it.

I later chatted on the phone with teacher Nel Smit, who had been away when I visited the high school. She told me about the numerous events the student team had held, including a Fix-It Day, a science and technology expo, a pedal-powered cinema night, and a sustainable house tour. They also set up a recycling program at the school, including for e-waste. Nel’s enthusiasm was contagious, and she was clearly a driving force behind many of the projects.

She said that winning the Zayed prize gave them lots of media and provided leverage to get other grants and donations, including from TasNetworks and Greening Australia. For example, each of the double-glazed windows for the cottage were donated by local businesses.

The project taught the students not only the science and engineering side of sustainability, but also leadership, group work, public speaking, negotiation, decision making, fundraising, project management and marketing. The student team went on to run a Tasmanian Youth Climate Leaders Program, for which they were selected as Australian winners of the Energy Globe Award. They also raised $50,000 to send a cohort of students to the UN Climate Summit’s Council of Youth in Poland.

Toby Thorpe had started as a boy from a humble and conservative background and was now a young climate leader regularly in the media. He went on to be awarded Young Australian of the Year. Nel herself received multiple awards, including the 2018 Tasmanian STEM Teacher of the Year.

I would later learn that a new cohort of students did eventually step up to continue the original team’s legacy. The old cottage-turned-Energy-Hub was used as a showcase for renewable energy and energy efficiency, and as a base for the team to meet weekly. They were in the process of producing a series of short films about ‘Renewable Energy Innovators in the Huon Valley’, with mentoring from a professional filmmaker.

And wasn’t this surely how these projects go? Progress happens in waves as each new group of students finds their own motivations and figures out how to build on the work of their predecessors.

I thought back to when I was a timid student and realised that even the task of getting solar panels installed would have been a major challenge for me. It would probably have been a challenge for my teachers too.

It occurred to me then that perhaps this was the ultimate success of the project: here were students and teachers working together to figure these things out, making mistakes and learning about sustainability right alongside each other. I wished that I had been part of a project like this when I was in school.

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A huge thank you to Jason Lunden for taking the time to show me around the school, and for Nel Schmidt and Toby Thorpe for chatting with me about the project.