George Lucas Educational Foundation

Constructing Sustainable Houses Develops Collaborative Skills

Teens in Philadelphia learn how to solve math and engineering problems while working together to build high-efficiency homes designed for disaster relief, as part of an alternative senior year program called the Workshop School.
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Constructing Sustainable Houses Develops Collaborative Skills (Transcript)

Tina: My role in this project is creating the prefabricated building walls.

Brittany: I've been working with the business aspect of the project.

Fabiana: I was in charge of working on the water management.

Alasanne: My roles in this project is based on the energy system for the house.

Simon: Some kids take real pride in having a 98 in red ink with a smiley face on a piece of paper. But most of us, when you think back to high school, the things you remember are not that test. It's something real that you did. And our question is, why can't school be based on that?

You've got one, two, three, four, five, six, seven boards that you need to cut to make a wall. Let's figure out, how long do we need to cut all your two by fours, right?

Student: Mm-hmm.

Simon: The sustainability workshop is a school program, it's a high school program for high school seniors. The idea behind the program is that students can actually learn more by doing real world projects.

The big question that you always get is, how are students going to learn to read and do math if they're working on projects all day? And we thought the best way to show people was to create this pilot program and demonstrate what it looks like and feels like.

Fabiana: It's called Land Rafts and it's a high efficiency, modular home. These modular homes will be packaged in a reused shipping container.

Tina: Inside the shipping container, it is packed with composting toilet, solar panels...

Alasanne: Prefabricated walls, battery packs.

Brittany: A water kit system, energy system.

Sagar: Basically, Land Raft is one package that provides everything you need.

Student: And this is to be deployed in disastrous areas like Haiti.

Brittany: Once it gets over there, they will be able to pull it out and put all the systems together within two days.

Alasanne: Yeah, let's bring all the other end.

Simon: The students did a tremendous amount of research on Haiti, natural disasters. A part of it that was thrilling for me was this idea that developing countries don't have access to the sustainable technology. When natural disasters occur in these countries, there's this inrush of money to address recovery and wouldn't it be cool to use that as a mechanism to deploy these high efficiency, small homes?

To the best of our ability, we need to make sure that these are square, right? Right now, look, this is turned this way slightly.

They developed a business plan and a technical report, what kind of sustainable materials, energy capture, water capture. And so the research, the science, the math and the kind of research abilities that they developed were impressive.

Tina: Okay, let's go back in the shipping container and see how much space we'll have, if we do it like vertical wise and horizontal wise, you know what I'm saying?

Tina: My role in this project is creating the prefabricated building walls that can be fit inside the shipping container.

There are going to be three here, three panels here and two panels here.

So we're creating about eight panels for the walls, eight panels for the ceilings and four panels for the flooring.

Man: So here is the big question: how do we get potential customers?

Brittany: I've been working with the business aspect of the project, basically trying to translate the whole technical idea and the good idea into a real world project.

It has potential to rebuild communities efficiently, so...

Man: Yeah, this is long term, this is permanent, this is sustainable.

Brittany: So I've been looking into where does the money go and how does Land Rafts fit into budgets of nongovernmental organizations?

Sagar: So basically, I click on it which will take me to other window and then I can just go to sketch.

The part that I'm working on with the Land Raft is designing the whole structure of the modular home on 3D AutoCAD, and making an earthquake-proof foundation.

We put the foundation and then the flooring, then the walls.

I'm the kind of guy who likes to work on graphics and stuff like that, so I thought if I'm in this project, I have the right, I'm going to use the 3D AutoCAD a lot, which I like to do.

Alasanne: We tried to test the solar panels by putting five of them together and put them at the forty-five degree angle.

My roles in this project is based on the energy system for the house.

This is where we were trying to put the batteries and on this...

So we're using solar panels that will be mounted on the roof of the container. We're also using twenty batteries and the batteries' input will be twenty kilowatts an hour.

Student: Your right hand up, there you go.


Yeah, that's right.

That's it.

That's correct.

Simon: The process of trying to solve a problem is what we're really after, right? The solution doesn't even really matter. It's the fact that students are struggling with real information. They're taking ownership, they're engaged. And then the amount of intellectual work that has to occur to build an electric car or create a Land Raft or create a business plan that solves a lighting problem is tremendous.

Student: All push. Lift your hand, in the bottom.

Simon: Hold on.

William: A program like Sustainability Workshop is really important for us as a school district, because if you think about the skills that our children need in order to be competitive, skills like problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, innovation, then Sustainability workshop provides those types of experiences. And not only are they taking on tough and challenging world problems, there's been a tremendous amount of learning that has taken place.

Simon: A lot of the school day in a typical urban school is "Sit down, be quiet, take your hat off, put your cell phone away." Here it's, "Why is that? Why isn't that working?" or "Why are you getting frustrated?" And even the difficult conversations are conversations around stuff that's real, instead of, "Behave, please fall in line, comply."

That's one of the things I think this process allows for, and teachers that thrive in it do really well, is we see the best in these students. We see the potential they have, we really see it, and it's not like I've got high expectations for Johnny and he's going to live up to them. It's, I know that you can do this and we're here to work on this together and let's get it done.

All: One, two, three, Workshop! All right.

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  • Producer: Stephen Brown
  • Director of Photography: Vanessa Carr
  • Additional Photography: Matthew Beighley
  • Editor: Matthew Beighley
  • Associate Producer: Douglas Keely
  • Senior Manager of Video: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Commissioning Producer: Zachary Fink
  • Executive Producer: David Markus

This video was co-produced by Mobile Digital Arts and Twin Cities Public Television as a companion to the PBS special, Is School Enough?

Is School Enough? Video Series

Edutopia's new series profiles young people who are making their learning more authentic by taking it into their own hands, on their own time. This series is produced by Mobile Digital Arts and Twin Cities Public Television, as a companion to an hour-long PBS special that is now available to watch.

More Edutopia Coverage on Collaborative Learning

The Philadelphia-based Workshop School (formerly Sustainability Workshop) grew out of a desire to design an educational experience focused on real-world problem solving. The Workshop School is becoming a full-service school, and is currently enrolling students for the 2014/2015 school year. In 2012/2013 it was a full-time alternative senior year program for 28 volunteer students from three Philadelphia high schools. For more information on the Workshop School, please visit the Workshop School FAQ page. Keep up to date with the Workshop School on Twitter.

Visit the Is School Enough? series page to see more videos on informal learning.

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