January 2012
December 22, 2011

Teacher, students build water, solar systems to improve lives

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Doug Hollinger talks to his physics students about solar panels that are on the roof of Pavilion Central High School in Pavilion, Genesee County. Photo by Jen Rynda.

When this teacher says "team," he's not speaking about soccer or lacrosse, he's talking solar energy and social justice.

Doug Hollinger, a Pavilion Faculty Association member and 28-year science teacher, formed the Global Youth Service Team — or GYST — five years ago to fuse alternative energy with an action plan to provide young people in less fortunate situations access to clean water, education and training.

One of nine chapters across the country, GYST allows students to apply physics to alternative energy, creating solar electric and water purification systems thousands of miles away in high-need countries.

First, they start at home. A wind turbine system in back of Pavilion High School, Genesee County, and a rooftop solar system are tied to the electric grid — the electricity produced goes into the grid. In return, the school, as a small producer, gets its electric bill reduced. A third, independent system, designed and built by Hollinger's physics students, supplies power to the science lab.

"The alternative energy systems at school are first and foremost educational tools to teach renewable energy," said Hollinger, who works with earth science teacher Dawne Adams.

Just as energy is the core of electricity, so is education at the heart of Hollinger. He instructs his students how to set up alternative energy systems and then teaches them how to teach. Hollinger and the students, who pay their own way, then head to the Thailand/Burma border during the summer to help "some of the millions of refugees who live without electricity and access to water."

The team builds solar-powered electrical systems at clinics, so medics can operate at night, and in schools, so students can study. The team also builds ultraviolet water purifiers that are operated off the solar systems.

Students travel to regions "where people are in need due to energy and natural resource poverty, natural disasters or human rights violations," said Hollinger.

Members of the Global Youth Service Team, who meet after school and on weekends, learn to be solar technicians and to teach those they are helping how to build and maintain their own systems.

Fundraising before the trip helps pay for solar panels, batteries and control systems.

"This past summer we did three schools at the refugee camps," said Hollinger. The schools are made of bamboo and can house up to 120 students. They are boarding schools with dorms, so lighting is vital.

"Kids feel safer. Teachers are more confident about safety," he said. Without solar energy, many schools use candles or kerosene, which are highly flammable sources. Having purified water prevents illness and saves time from having to build wood fires and boil all the water. Relying less on firewood reduces deforestation.

"This is where science meets social justice," Hollinger said. "It gives kids the opportunity to participate in the renewable energy field and also see how they can make an impact on the human rights problems in South Asia. We're also addressing climate change by reducing dependence on fossil fuels."