New take on a burning issue

17th June 2011 at 01:00
A woodchip boiler has inspired an innovative joint venture in maths, science and geography. Jean McLeish reports

A biomass boiler installed at Aboyne Academy in Aberdeenshire has become a powerhouse in Curriculum for Excellence. The wood-chip burning system is the inspiration for investigations by S2 pupils into the school's current energy management system and its impact on future climate change.

Three principal teachers of maths, science and geography planned the S2 Energy Sustainability project as a collaborative venture, now in its second year. The academic work developed has inspired pupils and was highlighted as an example of CfE good practice when their teachers presented a case study to a recent conference on "Building the Curriculum 4" in Aberdeen.

"We are looking to develop relevant links between subjects, to increase the depth of learning and utilise local resources like the boiler and the local woodland," says Michael Foy, humanities PT.

"This was a fantastic opportunity to take something very local - the heating of our school - and begin to learn about how that works, where the energy comes from and how much it costs," he says.

In maths, pupils monitored changes in their local climate since 1959, using statistics from the Met Office at nearby Braemar. "We decided maths would do the data and graph-drawing, then they would come to science and get their tour of the biomass boiler, do some calculations and then do an investigation into the wood chips," says Alistair Dixon, science PT.

In geography, pupils tried to predict climate trends based on the graphs they plotted in maths. Then they looked at the national and local impact of three alternative future climate scenarios. Their speculations were light-hearted - more ice-cream shops opening in warmer times, more kayaking with more rainfall.

Working with real weather data from the Met Office was a welcome departure from "counting tomatoes in Mr Jones's greenhouse", says Karen Birnie, maths PT: "Mr Jones is meaningless to the pupils and they are not really bothered about the tomatoes in his greenhouse. So getting meaningful data is much more interesting."

Her pupils used weather information to plot seasonal trends in maximum and minimum temperatures and rainfall averaging across five decades.

"One of the difficulties is that real-life data is messy," says Mrs Birnie. "So they had to think about how they dealt with some of the issues like missing data, having to work with negative numbers. That stretched them a wee bit further than the textbook would have done."

Pupils put project work in the three subjects into one booklet for this topic, which is now a fixture in the curriculum. In the final stage of the project, they look at how their school heating system is likely to cope with future climate change and how they can minimise their carbon footprint.

"It's fun, the pupils enjoy it and it's linked to all the subjects, so they see the relevance of it," says Mr Dixon.

This is the youngsters' first experience of linked working across three subjects and they are positive about it.

"I thought it was better than using stuff out of a textbook, because it was real data from our area," says Grace Cameron, 13.

They discovered that, over the decades, January has become colder and July slightly warmer. "Probably colder winters and warmer summers," thought Kiera Brown, 14.

Katie Thow, 13, thought it would be much colder than it actually was, while her friend Isla Brown, 14, says: "I liked the science. We visited the biomass boiler and we worked out the cost difference from burning oil to burning the woodchips."

They haven't quite cracked climate change, says their teacher, Michael Foy. "When it came to looking at climate predictions and future climate scenarios, those are questions to which nobody has answers. So the pupils all made different predictions based on how they felt the trends were."


Aboyne Academy's head, Raymond Jowett, is a passionate environmentalist, and when the new boiler was installed at the school in 2007, he told TESS he wanted it to be a vehicle for environmental education, as well as fuel efficiency.

The automated heating system burns wood chips from a local sawmill, with the oil heating system used as reserve back-up. This is a community school, so the boiler heats the academy, the neighbouring primary and the public swimming pool. "They're using less oil than they thought they would when they planned it, so it's very efficient," says Mr Jowett.

As well as cutting the school's carbon footprint, Aberdeenshire Council's initiative to switch from oil saves the authority at least pound;45,000 a year. When the system was installed with Scottish Government support, the school asked the company for output data from the boiler to use in education.

Then in 2009, maths principal teacher Karen Birnie embarked on a Forest to Fire project with her S2 pupils, measuring the height and volume of trees to see how many were needed to keep the boiler going.

Following on from this, Aboyne Academy was one of a group of schools invited by Learning and Teaching Scotland to put together a STEM pilot project, which resulted in this ongoing work with colleagues in science and geography.

"When we did Forest to Fire it was mostly in maths, with a little bit of geography input," says Mrs Birnie. "But the sustainability project we have put together has been much more of an interdisciplinary project."

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