Archived — Lunch-time meetings with the fix-it guys

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Destination conservation

This is a really great program that my Grade 6 students have used to help the school save money on its energy costs.

The key to the program is that the kids who take part in it get to split the savings with the school. If they manage to save $1000, they get a portion of that to spend on things related to their Destination Conservation activities.

One example of what we did at our school was to check the entire building for energy wasters such as leaking faucets and missing caulking. We used an audit sheet provided by Destination Conservation to help us. We also made suggestions about changes that could be made to the school's energy-using systems to save money. For example, we were able to suggest a modification to the fluorescent-tube lighting system.

For each money-saving idea we put forward, the kids had to interview the staff responsible for the systems involved and prepare a written proposal to sell the idea to the principal.

Incredibly, these measures make a huge difference when they are put into practice. Both the kids and the school administration were amazed when the first year's savings amounted to $1000. The next year, they doubled that, and the year afterwards they doubled again to reach $4000.

Another benefit for the kids is that they get to go places they otherwise would never see in the school. They have visited the furnace room and the roof and learned how the systems in those locations work. They got to poke their noses in every little corner of the school.

We currently have $6000 to spend on a project, but we are in no hurry to do so until we carefully consider all our options. Some of the available choices include buying a piece of the rainforest or perhaps adopting a whale. Then again, maybe we should spend it to buy some motion detectors that would be used to make sure that lights in the less-used sections of the school only get turned on when they are really needed.

Destination Conservation began here in the West, but it is going national. If you are interested in setting up a program like this in your school, contact:

Tom Yohemas
10511 Saskatchewan Drive
Edmonton, Alberta
T6E 4S1

Telephone: 403-432-9151
Fax: 403-439-5081

World Wide Web: www.dcplanet.org/

Rocque Richard
École Our Lady of Perpetual Help School
Sherwood Park, Alberta

Rocque Richard's Grade 6 students mostly come to school by bus, often from some distance. It was while trying to keep these kids occupied during the long lunch hour that Mr. Richard came up with the Fix-it Club.

He found that the club was a much bigger draw than the athletics programs also being offered. Now, instead of the 10 to 12 athletic students he used to coach, Mr. Richard has an activity that draws anywhere from 50 to 60 students per session. The participants bring broken toys and other gadgets from home and, in fixing them, they learn about electricity and mechanics and acquire problem-solving skills. As an added bonus, the students get introduced to tools they are unlikely to be able to use at home.

A simple idea with big dividends

Given all the things that I have done in education, I am more than a little surprised at how excited people get when they learn about this crazy Fix-it Club. It was such a simple thing - driven partially by a desire to do something that I really enjoy with the kids - and yet, looking back, I am amazed at how much time my students and I have put into it and how much we have all gotten out of it.

It all began when one student brought in a remote-control car that no longer worked. As a father myself, I have taken apart more than my share of broken toys, so I sat down and started to take it apart while he and his friends watched. Like any teacher, when I saw the simple electric circuit inside I started to talk about it with them. This sort of circuit is part of the Grade 5 and 6 curriculum and the students were immediately interested. Not one to miss an opportunity like this, I shifted things around and got them doing the work while I watched. There was a break in the circuit that this little group easily found and before long, the car's owner was soldering a circuit together for the first time in his life.

This idea quickly caught on and other students began bringing things in. I formalized this and we now have a special area where things are accumulated until we have enough to hold a club meeting. Often the students will come to me and ask if they can have a session on days when the weather is a little rough or just when they want a little excitement.

Starting with that remote-control car, we have had an incredible variety of toys come through the club. There is a lot of really good science in toys and the kids get a whole new perspective on them once they realize how much goes into them. As I write this, we are working on a real antique. This is quite a challenge for the kids, because it has no screws and is being entirely held together by flaps of metal that are folded over other parts of the toy.

Some other things we have fixed include a popcorn maker and a couple of electric pencil sharpeners.

There are some things that I do not allow. Obviously, anything that plugs into a wall socket is off limits to kids this age. Even though we could probably fix some of these things safely, I would not want to encourage kids to open them on their own. The message I give is that higher voltage items are simply not to be touched.

Similarly, I discourage anyone from bringing in items that are going to be really complex. A clock, for example, has too many parts for students this age. It also seems to me that this would have to be a restriction if you wanted to start a club with slightly older kids in junior high. At that age, kids begin playing with very complex things, such as walkie-talkies and electronic games, that would be well beyond the science concepts they learn in school.

The work is done in groups of three to five kids during the club session. I teach them to do things in a logical order. For example, they have to use a volt meter to test the batteries first, because there is no point in taking a toy apart before you make sure the battery isn't the problem.

While taking the toy apart, the students have to keep careful notes on what they are doing so that they will be able to put it back together again. Once disassembled, the first order of the day is to give everything a good cleaning. Most of the time, probably 9 times out of 10, this is all that is needed to make the toy or gadget work again. This is especially true of these new educational toys that require children to push buttons to learn answers to questions. There is a very valuable lesson about electricity and conductivity in this and I make sure the students grasp this.

Other science that is not directly related to fixing the toy often comes up. For toy cars, for example, I have the kids count the gears on the drive mechanism and figure out what the gear ratio is.

After opening and cleaning the toy as well as discussing the science involved, we have to fix the toy if we can. The students begin by going through all the functions that have to take place for the toy to work. Are all the connections required for the circuit in place? Is there a current flowing when the toy is turned on? Are the mechanical parts in good order? Sometimes, the news is really bad and a motor will be seized, making the toy beyond repair. In that case, the students have a choice: they can either take the toy home or they can donate it as a source of spare parts for future repairs.

That is it. It seems pretty simple and it felt pretty simple as my students and I were doing it. Along the way, however, we all had to develop our brains and that takes some work. It all comes back to science. With each toy, we have to do some careful observation. We have to be methodical and to write down everything we do so we can figure a way to get out of trouble if we get stuck. When it comes time to fixing something, everyone has to make a prediction of what they think will happen. If it doesn't work out the first time, I tell them, you have to give it three or four good tries. Even when they get the results they want, they know that a good scientist goes back and checks everything again anyway.

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