Environmental Physics students enhance fourth grade study of energy

Plants on the roof? Walls made of earth? Houses heated by sunlight? The concepts ignited the imaginations of the fourth graders. They drew close, sitting on the classroom carpet so they could peer into the small houses the high school students brought with them.

Scenes like this were taking place in all fourth-grade classrooms at Increase Miller Elementary, as John Jay’s Environmental Physics seniors visited to show their passive house designs to the students. It was a learning experience for all: the high school students practiced communicating concepts in simple, concrete language, while the fourth graders stretched their study of energy and conservation. It also put Katonah-Lewisboro’s commitment to sustainability into engaging and relevant action.

The inter-level program came about through the District’s Sustainability Committee. The group connected fourth grade teacher Jane Emig and high school physics teacher Jim Panzer. They created the unit together.

Three teams of students presented to each fourth-grade class. The elementary students evaluated the presentations according to a rubric, explained Emig. "It focused their attention on the creative features of the design which applied sustainable practices."

While the designs were very different, they had key concepts in common.

“A passive house is one that doesn’t use fossil fuels or release any carbon emissions,” began the team of Talia, Caitlin and Lilian. “Because it’s really well insulated, it can be heated by the sun.” What caught the students’ attention was their mention of rammed earth walls. “These are made by compressing local soil. They insulate well and don’t require fossil fuels to produce. It’s better for the environment.”

Claire, Jessica, Carolina and Luke highlighted the importance of awnings to let sun into the house during winter in the house and keep it out during summer. Fourth graders leaned in to watch as Luke used his cell phone flashlight to demonstrate how the angle of the sun changed in the summer and winter, and how the house’s awnings accommodated that.

Rumi and Jessy’s passive house looked different; it had a flat roof. Jessy lifted the roof off and showed the students the flowers drawn on it. “Our house has plants on the roof,” explained Jessy. “Plants absorb carbon and help regulate the temperature inside the house.”

“How will you water it?” asked one fourth grader.

“We chose plants that didn’t need much care or water,” said Jessy. “Our house is located in our district, and we get a good amount of rain here.”

“The fourth graders asked some questions that my students didn't anticipate,” said Panzer. “My students’ understanding of their own work was enhanced by being made to find the right words to explain to a younger person the highly complex processes they were asking about."

As the high school students headed out the door, one fourth grader caught Panzer. “Everything black on the houses should be covered with shiny stuff,” said the student.

“I’ll see you in Environmental Physics in eight years,” said Panzer.