Students empowered in electricity experiment

Class project teaches first-graders how to build 'bio-generator'

Posted: Sunday, November 18, 2007

If teacher Fred Hiltner had his way, Harborview Elementary School would be off the city's power grid and run entirely on alternative energy. Since that's not going to happen anytime soon, his first-grade class is starting simple.

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The class constructed a homemade "bio-generator" that will turn deer manure into methane fuel.

"It's pretty cool," first-grader Nikki Box said.

The methane generator is the first in a line of classroom projects that Hiltner expects will include a small wind and a hydroelectric generator. Hiltner is hopeful that his students will progress through the various generators and eventually produce enough energy to take their classroom off the grid.

"The goal is to power our classroom," Hiltner said.

The methane generator project is simple enough that a class of 19 6-year-olds and their teacher could build it themselves.

A few feet of small-diameter tubing, a 5-gallon water jug, a cork, a simple brass valve and a Mylar happy birthday balloon becomes an effective methane generator once a few pounds of deer manure and water are added.

"It's almost too simple to believe," Hiltner said.

In a world that seems to know oil reserves will run out, renewable energy is an important and necessary topic, he said.

"We're trying to save energy because the world will run out of oil," first-grader Natalie Costgrove said.

"We're making it so they don't drill underground and burn oil," classmate Daniel Lennon said.

The idea for the class project came from thinking about his students in the long-term, Hiltner said. By 2019, his students will be adults and he hopes that a lifelong energy consciousness starts at Harborview.

Perhaps his students will see uses and develop alternative energy that is unimaginable to us today, he said.

"It's very motivating for children," he said.

Box thinks the methane generator's flame could be taken camping.

"We could roast marshmallow with it," she said. "We could cut the wires off to the class and the wind generator could power our lights."

Hiltner's is the kind of class that finds topics such as science, art and writing conjoined into a single project. They write the plan, draw out the design and then construct the generator.

Costgrove can recite the methane generator design and outcome from memory. Lennon is already working out the details of constructing a Pelton wheel from plastic spoons, magnets and wire to generate electricity from water.

"They're very good scientists," Hiltner said.

Dave Stoltenburg, Harborview principal, said Hiltner should be applauded for introducing high-order thinking skills to first graders. Stoltenburg said that the question about placing a small wind turbine actually made it to the architects creating remodel designs for Harborview.

"If we can do it, why not?" the principal said.

On Thursday students took turns holding their noses and spooning manure into the water jug to get the experiment underway. With water as a catalyst, microbes contained in the manure create a gas that should fill the storage balloon. When it's time, Hiltner will attach a Bunsen burner and turn the valve and spark the flame.

It will be great if we can do something tangible like roast some popcorn over it, Hiltner said.

• Contact Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or

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