During the 2013-14 school year, in the Headmaster’s garage, on alternate Tuesday afternoons after sports and on an occasional Saturday morning, a technological transformation began taking place. As part of the School’s sustainability efforts, a group of ninth graders converted a 2001 Jetta diesel-field sedan into a “grease car” that burns used vegetable oil.
Enabled in part by a 2011 summer curriculum grant, math teacher Sean Path did a year and a half of research on the project viability. He talked to other schools that had done similar conversions and addressed safety issues such as the need to acquire parent permission. A car was found on Craig’s list and a western Massachusetts distributor supplied the conversion kit.
Sean saw the project as “awesome and hands-on” and said at the time, “it allows kids to manipulate things physically.” More important, he wanted the boys to feel “a sense of responsibility and pride in their work.” To that end, he vowed to be more facilitator than teacher. “I have to be comfortable with a certain level of chaos and uncertainty and to resist the urge to prevent a struggle or solve a problem,” he said.
The project is an ideal one for students, Sean pointed out, as “it’s not like a math word problem. It’s difficult in a real way, not abstract one that isn’t relevant. I couldn’t in a classroom come up with a better problem that is more authentic.”
The grease car crew, fifteen boys whom Sean first asked to write an essay about the challenges they would have to overcome, had different responsibilities: some were working on the car or it filtration unit, some were filming the project, and some were handling marketing and solicitation. The team needed a source for used vegetable oil and therefore developed a well-articulated sales pitch to local businesses.
In order “to validate the fact that kids are putting in time” beyond their regular Fenn obligations, the car was driven when the conversion was completed—Sean used the Jetta to commute to campus. At the time he said, “we’re all learning, and we’re going to make mistakes, ask questions, do research, and get dirty, but if we can persevere, we can do this.” And they did in fact do it.