Student Reaches for the Sun and Succeeds
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Even with an overcast sky, the solar panels on the roof of George Mason High School in Falls Church were absorbing enough sun on a recent morning to power the air conditioner in a classroom.
The newly installed panels are meant not just to help fuel the school's lights and cooling system but also to energize a growing movement to reverse global warming.
James Peterson, a recent graduate, spent hundreds of hours over the past year selling the idea of solar power to school officials and then fundraising to put the panels in place. Peterson said he wanted his alma mater to be an example.
"I wanted to educate the community and the students about alternative energies and how they are viable," he said.
Students such as Peterson, 18, are often the ones pushing environmental initiatives.
This past school year, an eighth-grader from Rachel Carson Middle School lobbied the General Assembly to ban phosphates from home dishwasher detergents, after learning through a science project that they are a major pollutant to the Chesapeake Bay. An environmental club at Hayfield Secondary School launched a schoolwide recycling program. And a group of sixth-graders at Arlington County's H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program won the President's Environmental Youth Award for organizing a community for recycling electronic waste, such as outdated computers and radios.
"There's a monumental shift going on in this generation of students. More and more younger students are fluent . . . in the language of green," said Rachel Gutter, education outreach coordinator for the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, which certifies new buildings that embrace environmental concerns in energy generation and eco-friendly design.
Students often spearhead green projects because "they don't see the barriers," Gutter said. "An adult may think, 'That's too expensive.' The students are like, 'Let's just raise the money and get it done.' "
As awareness grows about environmentally friendly design, solar panels are appearing on school rooftops across the country, including in San Diego, Lexington, Mass., and Cleveland. But the technology, which requires some hefty start-up costs, has been slow to take hold in Washington area schools.
Among efforts in the county, a student group at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology has raised nearly $40,000 to invest in solar panels for the Fairfax County school.
In Falls Church, Peterson took on the challenge by himself. He first approached a teacher with his idea, then the principal. Robert Snee, outgoing principal at George Mason High, said it was "a brilliant idea" but questioned how a full-time student could accomplish such an ambitious project.
"I wondered what army of people he had behind him," Snee said.