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Sustainability 101


A Michigan school district goes green, inspiring young minds.

By Gordon Shetler
Spring 2008

The windmills are the coolest thing,” said Nathan Krohn, an eighth grader at Laker Junior High School. “Some people said no to wind power, but those people are living in the Stone Age.”

Listening to Krohn, it’s easy to see the big effect renewable energy has had on the small town of Pigeon, Mich.
The rural community has undergone a remarkable transformation that started in 2005 when three 80-foot-tall wind turbines were constructed in a field next to Laker Elementary School. More amazing than three giant towers standing in a field outside of an elementary school is the school’s dedication to teaching renewable energy and environmental stewardship.

“You, me—we all want a greener earth, don’t we?” asked Robert Smith, superintendent of Laker Schools. “But it doesn’t happen until someone picks up the baton. It all starts with one person.”

In this case, that person was Kathy Dickens, the junior high principal and guidance counselor, and her husband Brion, a general contractor. “Kathy and I had a crazy idea to do wind power on a small scale, and it worked,” Brion said.

The couple had looked for grants to install a wind turbine at their home, but instead found a grant useful for the elementary school. They applied for a Michigan Public Service Commission Energy Efficiency grant to power the school with wind turbines. The school was awarded $265,000 for three used 65-kilowatt Nordtank turbines, a smaller 10-kilowatt turbine and a 1,200 watt solar array.

Smith said the three turbines attached to the elementary school should produce, when functioning at full capacity, around $30,000 worth of electricity per year, which means that the school will be able to sell back between $4,000 to $8,000 worth of electricity to the power company, depending on how hard the wind blows that year.

Economically the turbines make sense, but the real value is in education, Kathy said. “The major goal was to use them to educate students about renewable energy.”

One way education happens is through informational slideshows, often given by the students themselves. Krohn presented a slideshow in January 2008 in a science room at Laker Junior High about the construction of the Harvest Wind Farm, the largest wind farm in the state, constructed less than a mile from the schools. Three of the 32 wind turbines that make up the farm were installed on his grandfather’s farmland in the fall of 2007. The wind farm generates 95 percent of the wind power created in Michigan. “Before the wind turbines, all we had here was agriculture,” said Krohn. These 400-foot tall turbines are “a drastic change,” but this eighth grader believes this is what the future of agriculture will look like.

“These turbines open the student’s eyes,” said Diana Schulz, Krohn’s science teacher. “They are excited about education and they realize we are a global community and what we do has effects worldwide.”

And as it turns out, wind turbines were just the beginning.

Across the hall from Schulz’s classroom is an old room that she converted into a hands-on renewable energy learning lab called the PowerHouse with a grant from the Convergence Education Foundation, a group that promotes science, mathematics and engineering in schools. The lab is used by students who construct miniature wind turbines and learn about renewable energy, water quality and air quality through hands-on activities and experiments.

The school also received a Michigan Energy Office Biofuels grant in 2005 to make its own biodiesel. It bought a seed oil press and a biodiesel processor so suitable local crops can be pressed for oil and turned into biodiesel. Last summer, sunflowers were planted underneath the wind turbines for this purpose.

Additionally, the Laker school board donated an old school bus to the Dickens last year that they converted to run on pure biodiesel. They have made it a traveling classroom for alternative fuels.

This year will also be the school district’s fourth annual Embracing Earth Day. The last Earth Day brought more than 6000 guests from across the state to teach students and visitors about energy efficiency and green technology. “The high school students ran alternative energy carnival games like energy Pictionary for the kids,” said Deborah Hasselschwert, a Laker High School science teacher.

With a recent grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Laker School District is also switching its bus fleet to 20 percent biodiesel and installing diesel oxidation catalysts. The catalysts reduce emissions of particulate matter by 20 percent, hydrocarbons by 50 percent and carbon monoxide by 40 percent, according to the EPA.

To top it off, under construction behind the school is an energy neutral greenhouse. It will be powered by solar energy and heated by a biomass burner.

“This school is cutting edge,” said Michigan Rep. Terry Brown, D-Pigeon, who spoke about Great Lakes water issues at the high school.

During his visit in January 2008, students were preparing for a new agricultural issues discussion for a National FFA Organization (formerly the Future Farmers of America) competition. Last year they won the state competition by discussing wind power.

The changes at Laker schools only appear to have started with wind turbines. Schulz, like Dickens and Smith, is an alumnus of Laker schools. When she was in high school the Lakers’ motto was “the green machine” because of the school colors. Now that the district has gone green in a different way, the motto is more fitting than ever before.

“I feel so strongly about renewable energy and what my students accomplish here in Michigan’s “Green Thumb,” said Schulz. “It will be through education that students and the public alike will begin to embrace Michigan’s greatest potential.”

Gordon Shetler is a first-year graduate student in the environmental journalism program at MSU. This is his first appearance in EJ. Contact Gordon at

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