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Doing Good

This is the time of year for food bank drives and coat drives. In this season of good deeds, I have been thinking of science connections that might lead to some interesting collaborations with some of the social service providers in my area.

I watched a special on a program here in my area that provides emergency services to homeless teens. There are on any given weekend over 250 teens in my metropolitan area who do not have a home. Many sleep in shelters, barns, under overpasses and in parks. The idea that some of my kids could be in that situation troubled me. On the way home from a meeting this weekend I saw a sleeping bag carefully tucked under a bridge on the edge of town. It made me wonder who slept there in the 15 degree night time.

I have been cleaning out my closet and donating clothing each winter and summer for years. This year I donated more than usual. But, it made me think what if I was not donating the materials that are most in need? How would I know? That is an opportunity to get my class involved. I asked my students to find out what materials are most needed. Five kids took on the challenge that day and called the shelters and food banks and got some surprising answers.

Money is so much more efficient than canned goods as the food banks can buy 5 cans of food for the cost of one we donate. The shelters always need bedding, layers of warm clothing in all sizes, coats, warm socks, hats, mittens, and shoes or boots. The emergency youth service agency says they often have to hand out sleeping bags to kids on the streets who will not go to shelters. My kids asked, “So how do they stay warm?” That is a great question.

In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, Brad Pitt had architects and engineers design simple, low cost, and green houses. The designers took into consideration the materials and the insulation factors, wind, water and a host of engineering principles from STEM fields. I wondered if we could do that for homeless folks who just need a warm place or a warm outer garment.

My challenge is to ask what we could design that could be handed out to the homeless that would be low-cost and effective at keeping them warm on colder days and nights. I am thinking that some kids will come up with something like the “snuggie.” But this challenge goes further than that. It begs the question, what is the most efficient insulating material? What is light enough to carry around and insulates well enough to help stave off hypothermia? Is it more energy efficient to build new structures to help these folks or to use existing structures in different ways? What kind of coat is the best from a thermodynamic standpoint?

One enterprising school in Texas followed on the idea from a church in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that hosted “warm water Tuesdays.” The church put in a group of showers in their basement and every Tuesday they invite the homeless into their church to get a warm shower, clean up and have a hot meal on them. The school started with the hot showers and then the foods classes joined forces with the local shelter and offered soup on Wednesdays to anyone who needed a meal.  There were lots of students who ate one of their few evening meals at the school on those nights. We could help out with some creative use of facilities like this or weave science into the making of soups. The ways to help are numerous. All we have to do is find one that connects.

The social studies classes will participate and we will certainly take more than our fair share of side trips on this one. The application of good science to solve a social problem is a good way to involve a wide range of students on an adventure that just might help someone in the next desk.

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