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Experiments on Bronx school’s green roof taking students far

At the beginning of the 2011-12 school year, Elton Hollingsworth and Noel Cruz, both ninth-graders at the Bronx Design and Construction Academy, joined the science club. Little did they know that a short nine months later, they’d board a plane bound for Denver as two of the youngest people to present at a leading industrial conference.

Last week, the boys explained findings from an experiment they’ve been conducting on the school’s green roof — the first of its kind in a New York City public school — at the World Renewable Energy Forum. Neither had been on an airplane before.

“We were the only high-schoolers there,” Cruz said.

“It takes a professional level of work to get through our peer review process,” says Seth Masia, director of communications for the American Solar Energy Society (ASES), which held its National Solar Conference together with the World Renewable Energy Forum this year. “We’re most impressed that the science club was able to do it.”

The events brought together thousands of engineers, architects, professors and scientists to share the latest work in solar and other renewable energies. U. S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper were among the featured speakers.

And then there were Hollingsworth and Cruz. They explained the results of their science club’s project, which was an attempt to figure out whether adding a canopy of solar panels above a roof covered in plants would further boost the already known benefits of a green roof, such as lowering the roof’s temperature and purifying run-off water. In short, they found that it did, keeping the roof up to three degrees cooler than a green roof alone would.

If the topic seems a bit esoteric for 14-year-olds, Hollingsworth doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s another subject you can use to hold a conversation,” he says. “Because it’s always good to know at least one thing about every subject. So we have definitely learned enough to have a conversation with somebody about renewable energy.”

Nathaniel Wight, a science teacher who co-founded Bronx Design, runs the science club, which focuses on researching the green roof that was installed in late 2010 with the help of a grant from the City Gardens Club and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Students in the construction portion of the academy built all the devices and structures used on the green roof, and the students in the science club set up sensors to collect data like air temperature, which they then analyzed to learn about the roof’s environmental effects.

“They’re learning about this innovative technology, but we’re also trying to teach them the practical skills to learn how to solve real-world problems,” says Wight, who accompanied the boys on the trip to Colorado.

Hollingsworth and Cruz’s trip was welcome news amid a chaotic period at the school’s building, Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School. Two years ago, the city decided to phase out Smith’s construction academy and phase in Bronx Design to replace it. The automotive program remained, and will be joined by a nursing program next year under the city’s “turnaround” plan to overhaul Smith. Two alternative high schools — for older students who are behind on credits — now occupy the top floor of the school building.

Hollingsworth and Cruz said they were flooded with questions after their talk, and a Ph.D. student from Pennsylvania State University even emailed them about a potential collaboration. While the boys say they are happy with their accomplishments, they have their eyes set on securing a grant to make the school’s entire roof green.

Hollingsworth said he had a conversation with someone from ASES about possibly funding their project.

“They told us, ‘Name a price,’ ” Hollingsworth says. “I said $50,000 to $100,000 is what we’d need to do all of this. He looked up at me like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of money.’ I had to kind of play it off like, ‘It’s not that much.’ ”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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