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Save more money, buy more shoes, do more good

STEM students offer cost, energy efficiencies to charity

Forest Hills — The pitch was polished, strong and persuasive: swap old lighting for energy-efficient LEDs and save money so you can help more people and help protect the environment.

The pitchers: 10 sophomores in the STEM Academy at Forest Hills Northern High, along with student mentors from the school’s Project NEXT program.

The pitchees: In the Image, a volunteer-run nonprofit that provides free clothing, housewares and furniture to those in need. In the Image is known for its annual fall giveaway of new, donated shoes to school children. The organization is relocating from South Division Avenue in Grand Rapids to a new-to-them building in Southeast Grand Rapids.

On the heels of a successful energy-savings pitch to the district last year by Project NEXT students, teacher Austin Krieg’s 22 STEM Academy students this year worked with Consumers Energy’s student-led audit program to find ways to bring down In the Image’s operational costs. 

The kicker: Everything took place virtually, from a facility walk-through to learning about the science of energy production and consumption, as well as crunching the numbers and, finally, presenting findings to In The Image staff, Consumers Energy officials, school administrators and parents.

The takeaway: “You all blew my presentation skills out of the water,” In the Image Operations Manager Dani DuBay told students after their presentation. “The professionalism is amazing. If anyone is looking for internships, please let us know.”

And the findings: “This is something we will definitely be using,”  DuBay said.

Forest Hills Northern High STEM Academy students who developed an energy-savings proposal for In The Image

Pitch Perfect

Alexander Darling kicked off the roughly 14-minute presentation, joined by a handful of classmates. “You could get more funding for your program, the money could be saved for future programs,” he said.

Over the five-week course of the project, students participated in a virtual walk-through of the facility, taking notes on doors, windows and lighting.  

“One conclusion we came to is that small things can add up quickly, and that small donations can go a long way as well,” said sophomore Camille Gerville-Reach.

It was determined the best bang for their upfront investment buck was to replace what sophomore Joseph McClelland called the building’s “incredibly inefficient” existing metal-halide and incandescent lighting with LED lights. Doing that would reduce the building’s estimated $9,000 annual lighting bill by as much as two-thirds, students found. 

“Think of what In the Image can do with that extra $6,000, how many more families you can serve,” said presenter Evan Fitzjohn. 

And with an upfront cost of about $20,000 to make the switch, the payback period would be realized in 3.24 years, Joseph said.

What’s more, presenter Ava Hamilton noted that the switch would reduce the building’s carbon footprint by 8,600 kilograms, lowering its impact on global climate change. It would take 200,000 trees to absorb that amount of CO2, Ava pointed out.

But wait, there was more: The students also consulted with officials from Consumers to identify about $4,000 in rebates and incentives the utility would offer the charity to reduce the cost of replacing the fixtures. And the school’s Rotary Interact club pledged to take part in a can-drive challenge effort to raise $15,000 of the charity’s upfront costs.

Project-based Learning

“I can’t commend the students enough,” said Krieg, their teacher. “They may only be 15 or 16 years old, but that doesn’t mean they can’t practice professionalism and apply what they learn in a real-life setting. We’re constantly looking for more business partnerships to get our kids exposed to more careers and industries.” 

To prepare for the audit, STEM Academy students began the year learning the mechanics of two-stroke and four-stroke combustion engines, and how energy is harnessed to make them work. That dovetailed into where the energy comes from that powers students’ computers, then how buildings harness energy that allows them to function.

Krieg said the project encompassed various student interests: “Some kids were excited about the STEM component, and others were excited about the social impact — they could see, ‘This is making a difference in my backyard.’”

Project adviser Gavin Cornwell stressed with students the importance of learning what a particular client values — including financial, social and environmental impacts — and tailoring the presentation to what the savings will mean in any of those areas.

Said Cornwell to students in one planning session: “If you could save (In the Image) a thousand bucks a year in lighting and you are able to put 100 more people in shoes this year without spending any more money, that’s meaningful.”

Additionally, the distance-learning aspect not only gave students exposure to Consumers and In the Image, “it just shows their ability to adapt,” Krieg said. “Teaching them to work in remote settings actually makes more real-life sense (by) training them to work in the environments most people have to work in now.”

One high-ranking member of the presentation’s virtual audience was Superintendent Dan Behm, who sent this message in the group chat: 

“I am so proud of our STEM 10 students! You all did a wonderful job providing clear and compelling information. You deconstructed the complexities of energy use, costs, new technologies, and the return on investment. I agree with Dani, your presentation skills are fantastic and exceed what I frequently see from adults.”

Added Behm: “Great partnership! … If we can make more of high school experiences to be closer to practicing and experiencing what adults do in real life, our students will succeed.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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