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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Good news and better news
August 5, 2008 - 10:20am

First the good news.

I've mentioned before that one of the main challenges in making renewable energy, particularly wind- and solar-powered generation, mainstream is the lack of a good electrical storage solution. A "better battery". Otherwise, it's hard to keep the computer running on dark, windless nights.

Well, a researcher at MIT seems to have taken a significant step in that direction. Daniel Nocera, co-Director of the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center, has come up with a simple, efficient way to split water into hydrogen and oxygen while the power's on. Then, when the sun (or the wind) goes down, the two can be recombined in a fuel cell to create electricity. Details are in the July 31 issue of "Science"; the press release is available here. I'm sure implementation details (like safe, efficient storage of the hydrogen generated) remain to be worked out, but the basic announcement is very encouraging.

Watch this space.

Now, the better news. Kids are getting hurt, and their parents are paying for the experience.

According to a story on yesterday's "All Things Considered", there's a summer camp called "Tinker School" where kids take things apart, and build things, and use the things they build -- like bridges and boats and robots. I'm not sure about the robot part (coolness factor aside), but there's nothing like building bridges and boats to engage kids with nature. And there's nothing like knowing you're going to depend on the items you've built to guarantee learner engagement. Finally, there's nothing like successfully using the items you've built to create confidence, "can-do" attitude, and enthusiasm. My kids, growing up on a small farm where the needs always exceeded the means available, get a lot of exposure to the mechanics of reality. Tinker School, and similar programs (if there are any -- one can only hope), can extend that kind of learning to urban and suburban kids.

In my wildest dreams, real hands-on learning would take place in the public schools. But the chance of that is virtually nil. Remember that bit about kids getting hurt? Well, one of the rules at Tinker School is "no more than one injury per day". Whether the rule is actually followed is another question, but the fact that the tolerance for injury isn't zero is key to the learning that takes place. There can be no success where there can be no failure. Or, as I read long ago:

Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement.


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