How one sixth grade saves energy at home and school

When Donna MacCubbin took over as principal of Woodburn Elementary School in suburban Fairfax County, Va., two years ago, she was surprised to learn that the school had been unfavorably cited for its high use of energy.

Last year, under a mini-grant program funded by the school system, an innovative sixth grade teacher at Woodburn, Eric Kinneman, came up with an award-winning proposal for a series of energy conservation projects to be carried out by the students themselves. The result? Students' imaginations lit up, and school energy costs went down.

Mr. Kinneman, eager to break away from teaching strictly by the textbook method, was seeking ways to integrate science, math, language, and art activities more effectively within the scope of the existing curriculum. Using materials he gathered from the US Department of Energy, the American Gas Association, the National Geographic, and other sources, he provided his students with an overview of today's energy sources and how they work.

Students, working individually and in teams, conducted experiments in the classroom and at home. They discovered the effectiveness of various insulating materials, learned to read a gas meter, and kept temperature charts.

Creative projects included writing and performing plays on energy awareness, making colorful badges with energy conservation slogans, and sponsoring a schoolwide poster contest with an energy conservation theme. Students also wrote , illustrated, and bound their own books of ''Energy Fairy Tales.'' (Did you ever stop to wonder if the ''Three Bears'' turned off their TV set and their house lights when they went for a walk in the woods?)

An especially enriching experience for students grew from the friendships they developed while interviewing senior citizens at a nearby nursing home. Students learned more about what life had been like before electric lights, refrigerators, electric or gas stoves, washing machines, and television.

And in studying energy use of the future, students toured a modern, earth-sheltered elementary school, noted for its energy-efficient design using a solar collector system.

Finally, the students toured their own school, familiarizing themselves with its heating and cooling system and looking for specific ways by which energy could be conserved. They drew up a list of 13 recommendations and submitted it to the principal and to the county school system.

Many of their suggestions were put in effect right away and contributed to bringing down Woodburn's energy costs. The students also produced a color slide presentation, showing their school's efforts to reduce its energy consumption. The presentation was shared with the PTA and other interested groups, and it serves as a model for other schools that wish to follow Woodburn's example.

''We feel that the project was a success beyond its original plan, thanks to the enthusiasm of Mr. Kinneman and his students,'' says Mrs. MacCubbin, ''for it provided the graduating sixth-graders an opportunity to leave behind something of real value for their school and their community.''

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