How can you power a living loo? The answer is blowing in the wind

4th February 2011 at 00:00
Learning about sustainability is a breeze for Moray pupils thanks to an eight-week programme designed by the people behind the Findhorn ecovillage

Their winter boots have barely had a chance to dry out this year. Some days blizzards and drifting snow have almost brought life to a halt.

But this morning there's hardly a breath of wind outside St Thomas RC Primary School in Keith, Moray, as the children scurry around the snow- covered playground, waving flags stuck to sticks and home-made kites.

Among them are Saffron and Meadow, two little girls who are learning how we have blighted the planet and what they need to do to sort it out.

During an eight-week programme, pupils will discover how to design their own ecovillage and homes, using renewable resources and alternative energy sources.

The programme is the brainchild of people from the Findhorn community who have been trying to live like this for years. It has been inspired by a similar project taught in the United States and Hawaii, and with the assistance of Scottish teachers it aims to help the next generation become more "eco-literate".

This cold stillness is making the children's research into the power of the wind a little tricky. But they are wrapped up warmly and enjoying building their own wind detectors out in the fresh air.

This afternoon's work on wind power is just one part of this ground- breaking project being run as a pilot in 36 primary and secondary schools in Moray. As well as discovering what causes climate change, children of all ages will learn how to live more sustainably and will cut the carbon footprint in their communities.

This sustainability education and carbon reduction project was launched by the Park Ecovillage Trust, a company set up by the Findhorn Foundation.

Teachers and education advisers have helped design the supporting primary and secondary classroom materials. Their lesson plans are in line with Curriculum for Excellence outcomes and amplify the Eco Schools agenda.

Cathy Frances, a chartered teacher and headteacher relief at St Thomas, developed the teaching materials for primary schools. "As a class teacher, having pound;2,000-worth of kit arrive on your doorstep with a set of lesson notes telling you what to do - week one do this, week two do that - is just fantastic," she says.

She is also conscious that the eco kit given to each school is a major advantage at a time when money is tight. "I am scientific co-ordinator for the school. If I had gone to the head and said `I have seen this really good project, can I have pound;2,000?' - it wouldn't have happened," she says matter of factly.

The venture has been funded by the Scottish Government's Climate Challenge Fund, which supports communities to tackle climate change by reducing their carbon emissions. Around 2,000 Moray pupils taking part will aim to reduce the carbon footprint in their homes and schools by 10 per cent year on year. Then after this pilot, the trust hopes the scheme can be extended to schools across Scotland.

Every school that signed up for this venture will keep the pound;2,000 kit, which will give children of all ages appropriate learning and practical experience to understand the natural and human factors in climate change. This afternoon, a mixed age group of 5 to 11-year-olds from one of the school's house groups is working together.

Ten-year-old Saffron Bowie (P6) and four-year-old Meadow Maver, from P1, are running across the playground trying to catch the wind. "I like flying the kites best," says Saffron shyly.

Back inside school, James Nicol, 10, is busy with another creation: "We're making a wind turbine to make a noise to scare birds away from our allotment," he says.

This project is a timely intervention - and not just for the planet. When Higher geography candidates were asked about the impact of global warming for the first time last year, the Scottish Qualifications Authority's external assessors described their answers as "very disappointing". They also urged teachers to make use of modern technology, to ensure information was relevant and not to rely on "seriously out of date" materials.

This project material was developed after extensive research to investigate what was already available. "There was a lot of stuff out there with lots of access issues and nothing that was really, truly adaptable to classroom day-by-day learning - and practical - that children could get their hands on," says Sue Clutterbuck, one of the project managers from Findhorn, who is working with the children on wind power today.

This is the first formal education programme of its kind devised for schools by the Findhorn community, which hosts visits from schools to showcase its ecovillage lifestyle. It's also something of a landmark for a community once regarded with suspicion by locals - to be leading their neighbours towards more sustainable living.

It's almost 50 years since the community's founders, Eileen and Peter Caddy and their friend Dorothy MacLean, set up home in a caravan on the edge of the Moray Firth. Their giant cabbages drew international attention to their gardening skills and lifestyle and newcomers flocked to join them.

Today more than 400 people live in the pioneering ecovillage, developing new techniques for building greener homes and growing their own organic produce. The cabbages may be more modestly sized, but the commitment to living sustainably and sharing spiritual values remains.

The community promotes its sustainable approaches internationally as one of the United Nations non-governmental organisation training providers for ecovillages.

"Governments around the world send people to us for training in ecovillages and permaculture and sustainability," says Ms Clutterbuck, who provides curriculum development and teacher support for the project.

Ms Clutterbuck is a supply teacher in Moray and lives within the Findhorn community. Her background is in teacher training and today she is working alongside Cathy Frances, teaching children about the power of wind. It is an active learning programme, as Mrs Frances says: "It's very active, it's very get-up-and-talk-to-your-neighbour."

The kits include a small-scale replica of Findhorn's Living Machine, an anaerobic digester that recycles the Findhorn community's waste, says Ms Clutterbuck. The children use it to build their own eco system in a water tank and then see what happens when they introduce pollutants.

"The Living Machine is a bacterial-based system that eats all of our sewage in the community, and after it's been purified, we then discharge it back into the environment," she explains.

"We wanted to replicate this system because it shows natural systems theory. It shows how nature - using wind, rain, natural precipitation and run-off, bacteria and micro-organisms - breaks down waste and pollution that naturally occur in the earth community."

Each school gets an aquatic tank that is a miniature version of this system, so children can see colonies of bacteria breaking down waste and pollutants that they add.

"That helps them to understand the interdependence of an eco-system and to see that if we continue to pollute at very high levels, the earth cannot clean itself up," says Ms Clutterbuck.

During the programme pupils build up their tank, exploring the water cycle, introducing plant life and "mini beasties", investigate the food chain and introduce pollutants to their system to "mess it up".

Cathy Frances helped her pupils assemble the tank, pump and components and figure out what they needed to make it work.

"We start off by talking about the water cycle and then we are constantly making links from what that Living Machine model in the classroom is doing - the mini-version of what's at Findhorn - and how that relates to us on our earth," says Mrs Frances.

Now in week five, her pupils are looking at renewable energy and focusing on wind. Their tank pump is currently mains-charged, but the kit comes with a solar panel, a wind turbine, and a solar thermal panel, which could be used to capture energy to sustain the pump.

"The idea is that the tank, the Living Machine, becomes self-sustaining - a closed loop - nothing comes in and nothing goes out. At the moment we have a solar panel plugged in and it's not enough to keep it going.

"I am hoping that from this wind turbine, when we are talking about what we can use the energy for, the children will say `Why don't we plug it into our Living Machine and then we won't have to charge the battery all the time?'"

There is already interest in this programme from schools outside Moray and after this pilot it is hoped it can be extended to other schools, which would apply for funding directly to the Climate Challenge Fund.

From natural waste disposal to renewable energy

As well as an aquatic tank, each school's eco kit includes a small wind turbine, a solar photovoltaic panel and solar thermal panel to provide renewable energy.

The idea is that classes build and use these systems in their schools and communities. Pupils will also be set ongoing objectives to reduce their carbon footprint at home and school by 10 per cent each year.

"Once they have learnt what is creating climate change and what they can do personally to mitigate it, they will certainly be better prepared and motivated to change their behaviour and lifestyles accordingly," say the programme organisers.

"The project also aims to initiate and embed in communities in Moray the types of knowledge and skills that will enable it to develop a more energy-efficient, locally-based and resilient economy, better able to undergo transition into a high-cost energy future."

Supporting teaching materials include pupil assessments and lesson plans highlighting associated CfE outcomes. There are suggested games and activities, questions for discussion, key words and lists of required equipment.

The pack has posters illustrating the learning themes and a DVD with short films about ecovillages and the Living Machine system, comparing it with a traditional sewage plant. There are also links to the climate change pack devised by one of the project partners, the Royal Mail Group.

Training sessions were held for Moray teachers last summer and it is now hoped newly-qualified teachers in the area can be introduced to this system of hands-on sustainable education.

As the project literature points out: "Having a substantial body of young people knowing their carbon footprints and the actions necessary to make emissions reductions is in itself a most valuable resource."

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