Powering up

Taos High students get their hands dirty with clean energy


Andy Leonard is a science teacher (primarily in physics and environmental science) at Taos High School. He understands that the oil and gas industry is part of the New Mexico economy — as is the growth and lively discussion of clean energy. In 2017, he had a thought: "In New Mexico, we're moving fast and furious away from fossil fuels such as coal." Students interested in engineering, he further mused, need a useful, appropriate and progressive pre-engineering program.
Just having completed his pilot Clean Energy Systems (CES) curriculum this past school year — Leonard's first year as a THS teacher — he is already seeing a sustainable group of interested students ranging from ninth- to 12th-graders.
In the CES class, students learn the many different methods and ideologies of what is clean energy. "It's really difficult for most people to even really pull it together in their own minds," Leonard says. 
Because he didn't have all the necessary equipment last year, Leonard focused on petroleum to start things off. 
"It's important for students to understand petroleum and in New Mexico, the industry is one of our primary funders of education ... pros and cons ... my point is to get them to understand the oil and gas industry and then move into the clean energy component," he explains.
He then segued into clean energy by having the class build their own solar panels. A recent grant from Taos Milagro Rotary Club allows Leonard to purchase more power drills for building prototypes such as solar panels and wind kits. For the solar panels, as an example, Leonard provides the individual solar cells, the students solder them together in a certain order and then test the panels to see if they will indeed power up a cell phone, charge some other type of battery or power a light. During this course, they also learn how to create a circuit, "which is really high-level stuff to know." They cut the Plexiglass, assembled the ribbing around the sides and if needed, learned how to incorporate a USB port. They also had to understand the appropriate "chip-ware" so they could connect it.
It can be tedious to build prototypes by hand, he admits, but "it goes through the engineering cycle of design, build, rebuild ... test ... rebuild ... test ... rebuild. They have to go through all of that."
Thanks to funds from the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act and the $1,000 from Taos Milagro Rotary, he now has the equipment he needs to completely move into the clean energy curriculum and "really make this a robust program." Funding from UNM-Taos helped get the program off the ground.The first course is drip irrigation. It involves electric motors, photovoltaics, solar thermal and wind energy. There is an orchard on school grounds that is drip irrigated. The project will also incorporate environmental sciences, because students will be growing certain plants and looking at the entire grounds to see how they can make it xeriscaped or even native. Leonard received an environmental science grant from the Native Plant Society of New Mexico Taos Chapter to begin looking at that kind of problem. There is also a solar, thermal-passive greenhouse on school grounds and "they'll have to understand how that works as well." 
The second year expands on the first year's curriculum about different energy systems. The third year focuses on energy efficiency, such as insulation and thermal dynamic systems. The final year centers on an independent project. 
Some additional courses that are going be in the mix are biofuels, including a short section on biodiesel. "We're also going to look at some of the other sustainable biofuels like nuclear and what the value is of that, and some of the other chemical processes that make fuels," Leonard describes.
Leonard says he can't take credit for creating the curriculum. The program comes from a not-for-profit organization in Atlanta, Georgia called SERB (Southern Educational Regional Board). He travels to South Carolina to get trained on each one of the courses. He completed Clean Energy I last summer. And since he's repeating that course curriculum this next school year, he won't attend the Clean Energy II course until the following year. He'd like to build the third- and fourth-course curriculums from that point.
The class has already garnered attention among students — 31 attended the pilot class. He expects the same number to attend this upcoming school season and has already been asked if he would teach two CES classes, but he's not quite ready for that yet — "Let's go a little further before we do that." 
Leonard hopes the students will be able to earn a certificate through UNM-Taos or Santa Fe Community College and "go out and do whatever it is they want to do."
The engineering field is still male-dominated, he says. But in his class he sees a fairly even split of boys to girls. The areas of environmental and chemical engineering are helping to change that gender domination since more and more women, Leonard notes, are studying and working in those fields.
Leonard says he "grew up a nomad." He attended Robertson High School in LasVegas, New Mexico and has a degree in geology. He eventually went into teaching and taught in the Denver area for 25 years before he and his wife (an Albuquerque area native) decided it was time to return to New Mexico to be closer to family and "to see what we could do here.


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