The Island Project

As I promised the other day, I went to Carrboro Century Center this afternoon (right after meeting with Anton around the corner) to see the Island Projects designed by the Chapel Hill High School students of Rob Greenberg.
I did not see all of them – they were doing this in “shifts” throughout the afternoon and I could only stay for an hour – but I saw several of the projects and talked to a number of students (and to Rob himself). I have to say I was really, truly impressed with their work, as well as with their enthusiasm as they explained the details of their projects to me and other visitors. They really did their homework!
Their assignment was to design an island – this means inventing an island that does not really exist but is very geologically similar to the islands that truly exist in the same geographical location. They had to do the research on this – what kind of soil is there, what are the sources of water, energy, what kind of climate is there throughout the year, etc.
Then, they had to design a human habitation on the island in such a way as to leave the least intrusive environmental foot-stamp, i.e., to make the island economy as self-sustained and energy-independent as possible. Not surprisingly, most of the students picked the tropics, for two obvious reasons: lots of sunshine (so they could load their buildings with solar panels and have no expenditure on heating) and the possibility of (eco)tourism as a source of island income.
Some of the groups also had some wind-power sources, though they readily admitted this was supplemental as there is not going to be much wind on such islands except during typhoon seasons (during which they hope the wind-turbines will not get broken).
One group located their island in the Ryukyu archipelago south of Japan and nicely incorporated Buddhist and Shinto religion and martial arts into their tourist offerings, paying attention to the local culture (karate was invented there).
In order to keep the environmental stamp low, the off-season population has to bee quite small, e.g., 500-1000 people, doubling or tripling when the tourists are on the island as well. The food production was probably the most difficult obstacle for them, with only some of the islands having fertile enough soil for tilling instead of letting it just grow a forest.
I have to admit I gave several groups a “third degree”, but they handled it quite well. I would start by asking about the size of the island. The smallest I saw was only about 3 miles in diameter. The largest was about 14 miles from tip to tip of a horseshoe shape. This was my starting point for the questioning about transportation (especially for the tourists): a tiny island can be walked, but what about a bigger island? Bicycles, monorail and electrical cars/buses were the most frequent solutions they offered. But then, the next question: where does the electricity for electric buses come from? Sun and wind, mostly, as well as some garbage incineration.
Interestingly, not a single group thought of horses as a means of transportation for tourists! No pony-crazed kids in that bunch, I guess. Horses may not be good for the smallest of these islands, but for bigger ones they would be an excellent alternative. Bikes need pre-built bike-trails. Horses beat their own trails in a matter of a few months (and those trails are smart, as horses will find the most efficient ways to negotiate the landscape). Trail-ride horses need very little in terms of space and food. Most people who see horses only on TV have this idea that horses need vast expanses of space to run around and enormous quantities of food. But a horse that works several hours a day carrying tourists around (walk, occasional slow trot) prefers to sleep in a stall – protected from heat, insects, snakes, predators, and bullying by other horses. A few small paddocks can be rotated in the off-season. Such a horse also needs only some grass, hay and a handful of grain (which can be raised by using horse droppings as a fertilizer and horsepower for ploughing) – this is not a racehorse or an Olympic showjumper with huge energy requirements – trail riding takes surprisingly little effort from the horses and overfeeding them (which some people do) makes them nervous, dangerous and unhappy. And those super-modern tourists who are afraid of horses can use golf-carts, I guess, and stick to the less wild parts of the island.
I know it is impossible for the school to organize such a trip for all the students, but perhaps they can, on their own, make an appointment to visit the Smart House at Duke and get additional ideas about the ways to make buildings environmentally friendly and energy-efficient.
In any case, I was really impressed by the students and the quality of their work. They have learned a lot about the way to do research, about the Earth, and about the trade-offs one needs to deal with when designing environmentally friendly human habitats – something that, I hope, many of them will bring to their lives and careers later on. Kudos to their teacher, Rob Greenberg, for pulling this off – what a great example of science education that is really meaningful for the students’ lives.
I hope that some of their projects will be made available online as well, so other teachers around the world can use Rob’s experience and replicate this in some manner in the future.
Some pictures under the fold…


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4 responses to “The Island Project

  1. Nice reporting here, Bora, and kudos to you for engaging the students.

  2. Cool project — thanks for sharing, Bora!
    Two things: correct link to Duke’s SmartHome – http://www.smarthome.duke.edu/index.php
    And public tours are indeed available,
    just contact Melanie Blohm 954.234.5140
    melanie.blohm /at\ duke.edu to set something up.

  3. That looks a really cool project. I was intrigued by this comment though “The food production was probably the most difficult obstacle for them, with only some of the islands having fertile enough soil for tilling instead of letting it just grow a forest.” I’d have thought this “problem” conmbined with the fact most people went with a tropical climate and ecotourism would meant that with a bit of googling lead almost everyone would end up espousing the wonders of Mollison-style permaculture and agroforestry and hence utterly untroubled by food production.

  4. Urgh – I can’t write properly! That should have said
    “I’d have thought this “problem” conmbined with the fact most people went with a tropical climate and ecotourism would mean that with a bit of googling almost everyone would end up espousing the wonders of Mollison-style permaculture and agroforestry and hence being utterly untroubled by food production.”
    or something like that only more eloquent. and by utterly untroubled by food production I meant for the purposes of the project not for the purposes of living on the island if it were real – ie “I’m surprised permaculture style cultivation isn’t mainstream enough to have appeared in these projects” not “these hypothetical isalnds could easily feed themselves through permaculture”