A Windy Summer

Have you ever wondered what it is like to be a scientist and work on a problem that you don’t have the answer to?  I got to help six students do just that during the summer of 2011.  During the 2nd annual Pioneer Valley High School Summer Science Institute, six of my students built their own wind turbine.  They analyzed different aspects of wind, wind turbines, and how they impact the environment.  One group, Pei-Yang and Elizabeth researched if the sound of the wind turbine had an impact on the local creatures of the ecosystem where we live in Santa Maria, California.  They concluded that the wind turbine did add to the noise in the ecosystem. Although the noise from one turbine was not significant, the students concluded that wind turbines rarely exist alone and that since noise is cumulative, it is certainly possible that a whole field of turbines could cause a statistically significant amount of noise that could disrupt mating rituals or migration patterns.

Another pair of students, Marc and Jason, used the concept of biomimicry twice as they developed the design for the wind turbine.  They copied the tubercles from the humpback whale on the blades of the turbine to see if this would increase the efficiency of the blades.  They also built a tail for the wind turbine that allowed it to self-correct; the shape of the tail was based on one of the most maneuverable fish in the ocean: the thresher shark.  They concluded that each of these modifications did enhance the efficiency of their device.

The final group, Sharmaine and Melissa , tested 8 different motors to see which one produced the most power in standard testing conditions (using a fan).  It turned out that the motor that the kids bought online was the strongest motor! 

I saw my students learn not only about wind turbines, but also about themselves.  They learned how to use a drill and how to cut wood with a saw.  They went into the hardware store many times looking for parts that they needed.  They talked to many adults about their projects, sometimes to explain it, sometimes to ask for advice.  I saw them come together as a group, have disagreements when the project didn’t work, and battle back to devise a solution.  I saw them develop the skills that the need to be successful in the real world and I am very proud that I was able to be involved.

Riccardo Magni has been teaching high school science for 16 years in California.  He is a winner of the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators.  In his spare time, the husband and father of three competes in powerlifting meets and coaches youth sports.

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