DPU-PEEC program reaches out to LA schools

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Compliance: Outreach effort helps students ‘go green’

By Arin McKenna

Did you know you can create a “battery” using the malic acid in an apple? Or that light can make things move? Students in the Los Alamos Public Schools are experimenting with these and other hands on projects through outreach programs sponsored by the Department of Public Utilities and implemented by the Pajarito Environmental Educational Center.

DPU initiated the program after the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer mandated outreach to the public schools and the general public as part of a resolution regarding water rights compliance issues. DPU has $20,000 budgeted for the program, and has contracted with PEEC for the last three years to provide the service.

“It’s compliance driven. We have to reach out to the community, and, as the conservation coordinator, I’m the only staff member available for that. So I couldn’t possibly go out to the schools on my own as well as with the general public,” DPU Water and Energy Conservation Coordinator Christine Chavez said.  

“So PEEC does us a tremendous service in working with the schools; it’s our best partnership in the community by far. The teachers are all very familiar with the lessons now, and they request them before the school year begins, so they’re in high demand.”

PEEC has developed an Energy Trunk and a Water Trunk with lessons — many of them hands on — geared toward third through eighth grade students. PEEC instructors teach the curriculum in the classrooms.

Lessons comply with New Mexico State curriculum standards, but also impart knowledge about conservation and other local issues DPU has specified.

“We work closely together in developing all the activities, but they hire staff and train them and have them go into the schools to do all those lessons, so we’re very fortunate,” Chavez said.

Each lesson builds on the last, so a fourth grade student learns something that takes him or her beyond what was learned a year earlier.

“We get really great feedback from the teachers. They’re happy to have someone come in with something that’s standards-based, but also a little bit different,” PEEC Program Coordinator Katie Watson said. “And we try to focus on local energy sources - where we get our energy and water from in Los Alamos. And I think the kids like that, and the teachers, too.”

“I think Cool the Earth is probably the most popular program, just because it’s a lot of fun and involves the whole school and they’re earning these coupons and prizes for doing these activities,” Watson continued. “They have a green team, like an environmental club. This year at Piñon they put on a show about energy conservation, and then students pledged to do certain actions.”

“And when they have a school-wide initiative like the No Waste Lunch, that’s really fun for them, because they look at how much trash they get during a normal week, and then they look at how much trash they get in the cafeteria after they try their waste free lunch. I think things like that make a big impact on kids.” On No Waste Lunch day, students are encouraged to bring their lunch packaged in reusable containers.

“But I think they like the hands on part of the trunks, too, just the labs and stuff they get to do, because sometimes science isn’t all that hands on these days,” Watson said.

Chavez is upbeat about the broader impact of the outreach program.

“A big part of the DPU’s effort is to do outreach for our utilities’ customers,” Chavez said. “We have found that if you reach out to the younger members of our community, they’ll take that home and implement it. It’s a lot easier to do things that way than to educate adults and have them change lifelong behaviors.”

“My son is always telling us to turn out the lights now, since he had the lesson in his class,” Watson said.

“My daughter, it’s the same thing,” Chavez added. “It’s so nice when you see that work. It’s great to see that process, and it’s effective.”

The contract with PEEC expired this spring, and DPU will soon issue another Request for Proposals (RFP). PEEC is already preparing a new initiative, should it win the bid.

“We’re just working on a new set of lessons for the schools that’s going to be through the garden at the middle school, the Youth Food Project,” Watson said. “We’re going to be using their garden and hopefully their greenhouse when they get one to teach about water and energy conservation as well. The lessons are being written this summer, and we’ll get started on teaching that next year if we get the RFP.”

DPU also partners with PEEC on other outreach activities, such as bringing in guest lecturers. The next event is a workshop on rainwater harvesting led by Jeffrey Adams, founder and principal of terrasophia, an ecological design consulting and education firm. The workshop takes place at PEEC, 3540 Orange St., on Aug. 19.