Patience Vaughan wants to grow a garden on a roof, Tony Robinson and Elizabeth Oliver are trying to figure out how to construct a water filter and Anthony Tran is part of team that’s developing and marketing a more efficient light bulb.
All four are students at the Sustainability Workshop, an alternative high school in the Navy Yard that got a $30,000 boost from United Technologies this week.
“They’re funding us to help with our STEM initiative,” said Simon Hauger, a director of the workshop. “It has a huge impact.”
He estimated that it costs about $500,000 a year to run the program that he helped found in 2011. The school has attracted a great deal of national attention, and already boasts that 26 out of 27 students in last year’s class were accepted to college.
It channels students’ energies into a curriculum focused in STEM areas – science, technology, engineering and math. United Technologies specifically designated that its donation be allocated to those programs.
“The Sustainability Workshop is incredibly important to this whole broad area of education,” said Williams Sisson, director of sustainability with United Technologies Research Center. “STEM is extremely important to UTC. It’s important to us to keep our responsibility and making sure those investments are directed in those ways.”
The workshop is unique in that it’s a public school that draws students from four of the city’s comprehensive high schools: Furness, Benjamin Franklin, South and West Philadelphia high schools.
“We wanted to work with the comprehensive high schools,” Hauger said. “We felt like the specialty high school and the magnet school children have a lot of choices, and the students at the comprehensive high schools don’t have as much.”
Students attend class in what was once the commandant’s residence – a 19th Century Italianate villa of spacious rooms that now hums with learning, punctuated by the occasional sounds of hammering and drilling.
Vaughan, 17, is a senior from South Philly High. She is part of a team working to develop an environmentally friendly roofing system, one that helps conserve water and hosts a garden.
The composite roof is being built of tarpaper, sand and dirt. Students are building a model sheathed in plexiglass so they can see how it works.
“We’re going to try to grow fruits and vegetables on it,” she said, adding that the idea was hatched by the students who are “foodies.”
“We all like to eat,” she joked.
Their choice was also shaped by the urban environment that the students come from.
“Healthy food is not accessible or affordable,” Vaughan said.
Though students are on the cutting edge of education, studying modern problems with the latest tools, they remain plagued by age old problems. The garden in the schools back yard has been chomped flat by a ground hog, a problem students are still trying to solve.
As Vaughan explained her project, Kendrick Tan, Vivian Chen and Anthony Tran were explaining their own project, completed last year, in which they re-envisioned the light bulb, to make it more environmentally friendly and energy efficient. The LED bulbs save energy, but turned out to be very expensive. So, the team went a step further. Noting that, typically, 20 percent of the light bulbs in a house consume 80 percent of the energy, the team designed software that helped homeowners track usage and decide which bulbs to replace.
“We developed a business model which incorporated all of this to provide these high efficiency light bulbs to homeowners at no direct cost,” said Chen. She and the two others were graduates of the program brought in for the day to highlight their project.
Outside, Robinson, Oliver and Tina Tran work on their version of a water filter, working with sand, charcoal and something that looks like marshmallows.
“It’s not very efficient,” they laughed, promising to keep at it until they got it right.
The Sustainability Workshop is also part of the U.S. Department of Energy sponsored initiative in Philadelphia known as the Energy Efficient Buildings located at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
The Hub is a partnership between 23 organizations representing research universities, government laboratories, industrial firms, economic development agencies, and community and technical colleges. Its members are working to help achieve the U.S. government’s goal of reducing energy usage in commercial buildings by 20 percent by 2020.