Sustainability More Than a Theory at CVTC
Class Examines Practical Applications in Residential Construction by Mark Gunderman
When discussing principles of sustainability with his students, Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC) physical science instructor Joe Flackey makes a point to talk about the theories behind it—but that’s not the real focus of his sustainability class.
In keeping with CVTC’s mission, the class instead focuses on the real-world practical applications and how to introduce principles of sustainability into the workplace and into the end products.
“The class is mainly taught to students in the residential construction program,” Flackey says. “We look at how to make homes energy efficient and how to make them from materials that can be recycled.”
But along with that, the students get a helping of the reasoning behind it all.
“We explain to them the hazards of what is going on. We have more carbon dioxide in the air, and so we have more global warming,” Flackey says.
The burning of fossil fuels as primary sources of energy is the major contributor to the problem, and it’s not a sustainable practice. Eventually fossil fuels will run out.
Flackey explains how society’s overuse of plastics that are not properly recycled creates problems in waste disposal, while the production of the plastics contributes to the carbon dioxide problem.
“We have the students take a carbon footprint test to show how big theirs is compared to other cultures around the world,” Flackey says.
Flackey tells the students that if every person in the world consumed as much food, space, and energy as Americans, we would need five planets to sustain the consumption.
So what does this mean to the futures of students going into the residential construction trade?
For one thing, Flackey doesn’t get into political disagreements with students over the issue of global warming. Implementing energy efficiency and principles of sustainability in home construction is something customers demand. Many customers want to save the planet. They all want to save money.
Flackey talks about how builders can make the best use of south-facing windows in a home, and alternative heating methods like geothermal and solar. They discuss the life cycle of the home and whether when it’s time to tear it down, if it’s made of materials that can be recycled, or if the materials have to be dumped in a construction landfill.
In one lab experiment, the students make biodiesel fuel out of vegetable oil and test it for the amount of energy it produces.
“We will be able to compare the energy output to regular diesel refined from crude oil,” Flackey says.
Part of the lesson is how it is a carbon-neutral fuel, because the carbon dioxide produced when it is burned is balanced against the carbon dioxide produced if the raw materials were simply left to decay.
Students in the class learn to make ethanol and test it in an ethanol fuel cell. They produce hydrogen gas from water and discuss the energy implications. They learn to set up solar panels.
Along the way, though, Flackey points out the pros and cons of the practices and fuel alternatives the students learn about: Growing crops for producing ethanol detracts from needed food production. Biodiesel is a good supplement, but it can’t be produced in enough volume to meet a nation’s energy needs.
A single class is hardly the only exposure residential construction program students have to principles of sustainability. Their instructors in the field also talk about the materials and their “R-factors” as they build houses. Heating and cooling system alternatives are covered more thoroughly in the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) classes.
Students learn that sustainability isn’t just a class at CVTC. It’s a way of life, a way of approaching one’s relationship with the environment in which we live.
Chippewa Valley Technical College delivers superior, progressive technical education that improves the lives of students, meets the workforce needs of the region, and strengthens the larger community. Campuses are located in Chippewa Falls, Eau Claire, Menomonie, Neillsville, and River Falls. CVTC serves an eleven-county area in West Central Wisconsin. CVTC is part of the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) and is one of sixteen WTCS colleges located throughout the state.