Let’s Talk About Climate Change: A Teacher’s Dream Is Hitting the Roof!

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By Lucinda Wingard

Individuals may feel powerless in the global battle to forestall climate change, but finding local individuals making an impact are, happily, not hard to find here in Pierce County.

Consider the dedicated teacher who spends, like other average teachers, 50-60 hours a week on classroom duties. What more can be asked of her? But ever since she started teaching science at Jason Lee Middle School in Tacoma, Kathleen Hall has had a dream. She noticed right away that the extensive flat roofs of the aged brick building would be ideal for a modern solar panel array.

The idea percolated through the years in her science curriculum, where students learn about the cycles of H2O and CO2, the chemistry of plant growth, weather and currents, power generation, electricity – you remember. In school, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the science of how our climate is changing and the value of renewable energy.

About a year ago, three of her eighth graders were selected to present their “Solar on Schools” project at the Governor’s STEM Alliance meeting in Olympia’s rotunda. They studied, they planned, they delivered with passion.

Several Tacoma STEM Alliance members in attendance listened, they made calls to their contacts, they urged the Tacoma School District to consider the possibilities.

Now, for the Jason Lee group, came the hard part – transforming the idea into reality.

Teacher Hall imagined how expensive the project would be. She found out how complicated the implementation and politics were. In the next six months, she spent hours of personal time attending workshops, taking kids to climate change camp, and researching to increase her own expertise. She assembled allies, experts, and agencies. She shepherded her three remarkable students into presentations to the school board. She negotiated with Tacoma Power, school district engineering department, and with Jason Lee’s PTA. The girls presented programs at the school’s open house and in a special Climate Realities program; Hall filled out grant applications, and a Watts UP! donation site was born.

Jason Lee Middle School 8th-graders Gwendolyn Newport, Annie Son and Sammy Firkins in Olympia to present their solar panel project at the state STEM conference. 

Two hundred thousand dollars will about cover the proposal. The school district has agreed to pay for the permits and engineering in the building. That and a big Tacoma Public Utilities grant last fall covered almost half the estimate. At Christmastime, another large grant came through, and Hall has been delighted to see individual students coming up with fundraising ideas, such as a benefit bar mitzvah and a YouTube Challenge. Hall is determined that the entire amount will be in hand by summer 2020 when the installation should begin. 

All the while, Hall’s daily science lessons go on. Her students get no less than 100 percent of her energy and creativity. To gather data first-hand, they probe into the old school building’s infrastructure, or they explore outside while kayaking or geocaching. Her lessons integrate science with economics and environment.

What is the dividend for a $200,000 investment beyond lower heat and light bills? At the minimum, Hall’s students gain deeper knowledge of power generation, statistics, and local environmental impacts. Additionally, they gain confidence in problem solving and community involvement. Beyond that, her school district has now set, in February’s Prop 1 bond, construction upgrades that include solar power capacity along with other energy efficiencies.

For we individuals who look to assuage our guilt over our carbon footprint, (http://jasonleeptatacoma.org/wattsup) here’s a perfect offset idea – buy a piece of a Jason Lee solar panel that will benefit the entire community, and then talk about it!                            

Reprinted with permission from the League of Women Voters of Tacoma-Pierce County’s newsletter “The Voter,” February 2020. 

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