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Raised to the Nth Power

“How much do you spend every month on a 9.5 watts CFL bulb that works for 12 hours a day, every day?” was one of the few questions I asked of our solar scholars.

Being both a renewable energy and energy efficiency advocate and also coming from the electronics field, being conscious about our personal power consumption is one of the traits I’d want for every consumer to develop. I’ve also come to believe that teaching is the first step to create change in the way people think and act and the solar scholars has just given me the chance to do both of the aforementioned.

My session began on the first day with a blurry picture of Gary Valenciano, Mr. Pure Energy dancing.  Energy is all around us. It’s what keeps our feet on the ground, doesn’t let us randomly disintegrate, and allows us to appreciate the moving colors on our television screen.  Most of the solar scholars already knew that but a little more sorting of concepts could do a lot of magic in the way they see energy.  Wave energy is what they experience when they sail their motorboats to fish for their daily catch.  Chemical energy is what happens inside the batteries of the jeepneys they drive for a living.  Gravitational energy is what stops them from floating out into space.  Electric energy is what powers up a lot of our needs and wants, ranging from light bulbs to smart phones.

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Demonstrating DC voltage

We have agreed that electric energy or electricity was important and that it was equally as important to make sure that our sources of electricity are always available.  Why then are we still majorly dependent on fossil fuels? Fossil fuels are what dinosaurs might have dreamed of becoming but, just like the fate of the poor species, this source will come to an end.  Renewable energy on the other hand is so abundant, so infinite, you wouldn’t be able to use them up in your entire lifetime.  They come in the form of wind, water, biomass, geothermal and solar, most of which our solar scholars have already witnessed.

The second day began with me asking the scholars to move around ‘musical chairs’ like free electrons in an array of atoms. This is how electricity flows, only a gazillion times faster.  Electricity is quantifiable through power consumption which comes to us the form of our monthly household electricity bill. That was the day’s focus — to teach the scholars how to calculate their own power consumption and the financial impact it has on them.  Starting from the very basic cellphone charger used three hours per day, everyday, we discussed the mathematics of watt to kilowatt, multiplied to hours to get kilowatt-hours, and then eventually multiplying it to the rate set by electric cooperative.  We tried it a few more times with other examples such us cooking equipment, and LED vs CFL bulbs.  Because both science and math requires a lot of patience and practice, and scratch papers and pens, I had to do what most teachers do, give them a homework.

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Ate Seth of Iloilo calculating for the rice cooker power consumption

Though exhausted from the previous day’s activity, the scholars never ran out of curiosity and the eagerness to learn as evident on their neat answer sheets and the excitement to check whether they got things right the following day. But then, mahina ang kalaban. I wasn’t able to check every single entry they had on their power needs analysis forms so I instead gave them the reassurance that they can verify their own work simply by following the same thought process.  This way, they also go back to their homes with the capacity to replicate that thought process with confidence.

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Ladies from Asgad, Salcedo, Ate Vilma and Jenny, with Madam Zen, a solar technician from Barefoot College, operating the TekPaks

The RE-Charge TekPak was the tangible evidence of the scholars’ learning.  The exposure to this innovation started slow thus triggering a whole load of curiosity and wanting to tinker with the brightly colored cases. The TekPak session grew formal and technical as the training progressed just at the right pace to keep them eager to learn.  Just when we were done with energy fundamentals coupled with disaster response sessions from my colleagues, we agreed it was time to simulate the TekPaks.

After dinner of the second day, the facility’s main circuit breaker was switched off.  The lights went out and the scholars assembled their TekPaks to provide light and power.  Our executive director gave a quick speech about the simulation that eventually led to a surprise happy birthday song and cake for me.  I turned twenty-four that day and the surprise, though coming in late in the day, brought in a speech full of unsolicited tears of joy from someone who has been physically and mentally exhausted but nonetheless fulfilled with the activity’s progress. I have never before imagined that at quarter-life, I’d find myself standing before a blend of supertyphoon survivors and people from geographically isolated areas, who were eager to listen to what I had to say about science and life.

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Team Cabalawan with a birthday sign for me!

Power could be many things. In the case of the solar scholars it could be voltage multiplied by current. It could be the fact that they can assess themselves based on the knowledge they’ve learned on the three compacted training days.  It could be the fact that they go home well-learned and with the capacity to share such learning. Or it could be the fact that in their hands lie the success of an innovation that iCSC has developed for the good of their communities, the TekPak.

I might have acquired either the “terror science teacher” or the “engineer who makes corny jokes” status, but either way, I am hopeful that the topics and activities I’ve imparted with my solar scholars made a difference in the way they see things and that this difference will resonate as they head back to their homes learned and energized and raised to the nth power.

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