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Richard Crane fourth graders harness the wind

  • Viola Mikulik and Areli Perez, 4th graders at Richard Crane Elementary, stand in front of their working windmill during their exhibit Thurs., Dec. 13. Photo by Jane Peleti

By: Lanny Lowery
December 21, 2018

News Flash... from a student at Richard Crane: “Mrs. Finnegan’s 4th grade class is presenting wind turbines. They have been working on this project for a couple of months. They have tested their wind turbines on all sides to see if they all spin. They are very colorful and they are fast. You come Dec. 13 at 1:30 p.m. We hope to see you there.”

With this news, where else would a cub reporter be on a sunny and blustery winter day? Not only were the windmills electrified but also the Richard Crane Multi-Use Room was charged with the energy of 29 nine-year-olds and many parents and relatives. Pairs of budding scientists gathered around their windmills enthusiastically explaining their work.

Surrounding each project, poster board displayed pictures, charts, vocabulary lists, biographies of electrical scientist pioneers and illustrations of complex wiring, propellers and light bulbs. One side held pouches of information about circuit wiring and something mysterious called “My Circuit Tool Kit.” Another document titled “How We Made Our Wind Turbine” detailed how these fourth graders put together their windmills.

Christie Finnegan, the teacher, introduced the project to the room-filled school board meeting two days before this presentation. Last summer she took a class at Sonoma State University called Project Based Learning, a program that advocates focusing on one topic of interest and utilizing a multi-disciplinary approach. Behind the education jargon, this simply means using reading, writing, math, science, social studies and other aspects of art and technology to study some thing and develop some product.

Mrs. Finnegan centered this study around a book titled “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” a true story about an African boy, William Kamkwamba, who lived in a small village in Malawi. Using funds awarded by the Education Foundation of Cotati and Rohnert Park, she purchased a class set of these books. Her fourth graders began reading this full-sized 290-page book when school began. Along the way, the class watched with anticipation as William the boy explored science books from his village library to learn how to build a windmill.

Two memorable happenings in the book recalled by the students: the saddest part involved a dog dying and the happiest part was when William succeeded with the windmill.

As the students observed William’s pursuit to harness the wind, they studied about wind, weather and energy. One district employee, Larry Hendrickson, presented information about energy consumed at school and about the need to save energy. He challenged the students to build prototype wind turbines to offset the school’s usage of energy. A slide show of windmills demonstrated the range of turbines.

Sonoma Clean Power also presented information about solar panels and the effects of weather. The students saw wind turbine simulators online. Facebook reached out and also came in with an amazing look inside turbines.

Students followed these presentations by taking various mathematical recordings of wind movement in various parts of the school grounds. Then the students wrote newspaper articles and viewed more about windmills on “Ted Talks.”

All of this led to the major project, building the wind turbines with partners and presenting them to the public. Assemblies included wiring, leg supports and wind blades all made out of various materials. The wiring worked and the propellers turned after designs had been edited and revised.

Mrs. Finnegan has the students connecting with Global Partners. African pen pals will set up more connections and provide more learning about culture, technology, and humanity.

Interviewing the students provided delight and some insight about how best to operate in this world. Persistence emerged as a main theme: “It was really hard because it kept falling down,” said one partner while the other replied, “Don’t run away if someone else is doing something; it won’t be helpful if you’re just running.” More determined, another student maintained, “I learned that if you work hard with your teammate, it will really work.” Choosing the right materials was also important as one boy told me, “I tried plastic spoons and sticks but they didn’t work. Finally, I went for popsicle sticks and wrapped them with duct tape.”

All of the windmills worked, the parents were proud, and the students were delighted. One student summed it up best: “Mrs. Finnegan, we are really doing science!”