Program teaches local students how to solve real-world problems
Students from three city high schools will spend their school year searching for ways to make Philadelphia more energy efficient as part of a new program aimed at keeping kids in school and giving them real world experience.
“School is set up very narrowly,” said Simon Hauger, founder of the new program called the Sustainability Workshop. “If it works, it works — but if it doesn’t, what are you supposed to do?”
He hopes the answer to that question is the Sustainability Workshop, a pilot program officially launched Monday by school and city officials. The program, which actually started in September, gives 30 students culled from West Philadelphia, Furness and South Philadelphia high schools the chance to tackle environmental and energy issues while taking classes at the Navy Yard. Students will learn in a hands-on environment and work on solving a specific problem or set of problems while also learning the things they would have at a standard high school.
“If you’re unsure about what you want to be, this is something to come to, to get exposed to different things,” said Malakiah Hunter, 17, a senior at Furness High School who lives in South Philadelphia.
Hunter said he planned on going to college before he was chosen to take part in the Sustainability Workshop, but after just a few weeks the program has sharpened his focus.
“I just wanted to major in American History, something basic,” he said, noting that now that has changed. “I’m probably going to major in political science.”
In part, his choice was molded by the program, which exposed him to a number of things he hadn’t much thought about before — the environment, the effects of pollution, politics, green energy and his own set of skills.
That’s exactly the point, Hauger said.
“There is so much stuff you have to learn in high school that has no correlation to somebody’s success,” he said, noting that he was a math teacher but realized that teaching students things like the quadratic formula — something they would rarely use after high school — might not be the best use of their time. “It should really be about a holistic skill set.”
In addition, many students simply don’t learn well in traditional settings, Hauger added.
“Some of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with have failed in a traditional setting,” he said.
Monday’s event was an example of how the program works. School and city officials issued a series of challenges that students in the Sustainability Workshop would work toward solving. Mayor Michael Nutter asked students to study energy use at city facilities and find ways to cut that energy use by 10 to 30 percent.
District Attorney Seth Williams asked that all of the students graduate with a 90 percent attendance rate. Paul Hallacher, co-director of Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster for Energy Efficient Buildings, asked students to analyze energy use data from buildings at the Navy Yard and help make them more efficient. Interim-Superintendent of Philadelphia schools Leroy Nunery asked students to look at traffic patterns to make the district’s yellow bus program more efficient and ways to recycle materials the school district no longer needs.
The students’ solutions are likely to be put into action generating real savings and a tangible accomplishment for participants.
“I think it’s great,” said Shelley Hunter, Malakiah’s mother. “He hasn’t complained. He gets up and goes to school. It’s just awesome.”
Hauger said the idea started with the success of the West Philly Hybrid X Team, a team of students from West Philly High that, during an after school program, developed a car that gets 100 miles to the gallon. The team beat a group of students from MIT in a national competition, automotive start-ups and engineers.
“The really interesting thing was how students who participated in the program became very successful,” he said. “I thought, imagine what we can accomplish if we can work with students all day, every day rather than just a few hours a week.”
Ultimately, Hauger said it’s all about keeping kids engaged and learning in a city with a drop-out rate hovering near 50 percent.
“If you get to a place in your life where you’re willing to drop out of school, the system had failed you,” Hauger said. “Does that mean you’re dumb? No. Do you feel dumb? Yes.”