Sustainability Workshop educates in The Navy Yard


Brandon Cuthbert nourishes such educational curiosity that even the tedious act of watching paint dry might inspire a project. Since September, the student at Horace Furness High School, 1900 S. Third St., has joined 26 other seniors as participants in the Sustainability Workshop.

The assembly at The Navy Yard Quarters A, 1413 Langley Ave., distances pupils from their classrooms’ often chaotic confines and has convinced them and their instructors that its energy efficiency-heavy philosophy could remedy rocky relationships learners frequently have with traditional curricula.

“I learn just as much, if not more, here,” Cuthbert, a resident of 19th and Reed streets, said during Friday’s session.

He and the others, including students from South Philadelphia High School, 2101 S. Broad St., are enrolled in conventional facilities but attend sessions at only Quarters A, the yard’s oldest building, under the tutelage of teachers Michael Clapper and Simon Hauger.

“I enjoy normal settings but time here gives me more chances to explore my own ideas,” Cuthbert said after tending to his contemporaries’ computer station.

His two-story haven whirred with activity, as the teenagers addressed solo and group projects in numerous rooms without having to obsess over a customary site’s infatuation with grades and standardized test results. As long as its originators can promise diligence, any idea can meet approval from West Philly’s Clapper and Narberth’s Hauger, the latter the one whose West Philadelphia High School-based electric vehicle team 10 years ago prompted him to pursue a surrogate location for scholastic growth.

“We’re definitely not sitting around singing ‘Kumbaya,’” Hauger said to counter claims that such freethinking breeds few quantifiable results.

Because of their space’s relaxed vibe, he and Clapper never dominate discussions nor do they suppress ingenuity, as that quality has helped their charges to use each day to find, among other discoveries, ways to improve building design, construction and renovation. The colleagues contacted the School District of Philadelphia last year to pitch their plan, which included The Navy Yard spot through their interaction with the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster, a tenant and a primary sponsor. The educational power approved and suggested Furness and Southern as schools at which to recruit. Outreach yielded meetings with adventurous students bent on becoming pioneers.

“I have true satisfaction,” Cuthbert said of the creative endeavors.

One such undertaking, his fashioning an electric go-kart, will send him to April 20’s Green Grand Prix in Watkins Glen, N.Y. It will help him to have more than just essays to show when he enters what he dubbed “the real world” and serves as a metaphor for his and his cohorts’ brains, which likewise seem to zoom ahead as symbols of inventiveness.

Meanwhile, four of his peers have crafted the Bright Ideas! Project, a company aiming to provide safe, energy-efficient light bulbs at no cost, which will land them in California March 29 to 31 for the Conrad Foundation Spirit of Innovation Awards.

“For critical thinking to occur, one needs critical conditions,” Clapper said, adding most of the youngsters, who rely on shuttle service to be able to banter with him, came with intrinsic motivation to test any method to better society.

All accepted an Oct. 3 challenge from Mayor Michael Nutter, who sought to see if they could reduce their energy use by more than his designated 10 to 30 percent range for City buildings. Their ongoing task has fostered their bond, as have plans to build another facility, which has made Clapper and Hauger serious in desiring to expand the workshop’s vision and to have their territory become a recognized school including underclassmen by next year.

“There’s not one size that fits all in education, but there’s definitely room in the landscape in Philadelphia for schools like this,” Hauger said.

“We sit outside the mainstream, but that system is not meeting enough needs,” Clapper added. “We want a place where ‘What did I get?’ becomes ‘What did I learn?’”

Meloney Sutherland, a Southern registrant, bounded from room to room to show rapport with her peers and showed off a college acceptance board reflecting good news for 70 percent of the scholars, including her admission into Community College of Philadelphia.

“I wanted a shot at alternative education because school was too slow,” the West Philadelphian said.

Sutherland learned of the workshop during the summer. Finding its student-driven initiatives and collaborative achievement irresistible, she applied and has been sating her want for challenges since Sept. 6. Most of her fellow groundbreakers have scientific inclinations, but she did not burden herself with doubts about her chances to secure distinction. Enjoying the opportunity to pick projects over the fate of accepting assignments, she has used her freedom to conceive a book.

“It is a novel about an urban girl looking for renewal,” the budding author said.

All the enrollees have learning targets and work on personal evaluations. Those goals replace customary syllabi chores and encourage the youths to identify themselves as responsible. Laptop keys produced rapid strikes as the students reflected on their fortune as forerunners in an academic revolution.

“By June, I want to feel as if I am on top of the world,” Sutherland said.

She is approaching the summit with input from Clapper and Hauger, half of the workshop’s founders, whose demeanor has boosted her and the others’ confidence.

“I have more interaction with instructors and feel I am more aware of the learning process,” Cuthbert said.

The aspiring computer software engineer wishes to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He will not need to fear the school’s feeling he has avoided traditional subjects, as the students are tackling mathematics, science, English and some sociology in executing their projects.

“We know we are not a replacement for traditional learning,” Hauger said. “We want to complement it.”

“Transcripts will have grades, but their minds will give them paths to deeper understanding,” Clapper added.

To Sutherland, Clapper’s point will resonate as her final year’s last days wither.

“An A or a B does not show what I have learned,” she said. “There is so much more to success than letters.”■

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