These rural Alberta students built a wind turbine and hydroponics system. Next is a tiny home

Teacher Robert Tymofichuk helps a student get the right measurements for the compostable toilet.  (Liam Harrap/CBC - image credit)
Teacher Robert Tymofichuk helps a student get the right measurements for the compostable toilet. (Liam Harrap/CBC - image credit)

In a high-ceilinged workshop, junior high students pivot a plywood bed frame through the doors of a gutted school bus. Inside, there's new flooring and near the back, the beginnings of a composting toilet.

Eventually, the bus will have a deck, solar panels and even a wood burning stove.

"Most shop classes just make a birdhouse or toolbox, and we're making a tiny home," said Grade 9 student Olivia Saruk.

As students drill and hammer, teacher Robert Tymofichuk — also known as Mr. T — gives advice and encouragement.

"It's up to the students to go figure it out," he said. "If it was just the adult giving answers to the questions, what fun would that be?"

New Myrnam School is located in Myrnam, Alta., a villae 170 kilometres east of Edmonton. It has around 115 students attending in person from kindergarten to Grade 12, with another 85 learning online.

Liam Harrap/CBC
Liam Harrap/CBC

Around six years ago, the school received a $10,000 provincial education grant to build a greenhouse to grow plants year round.

Since then, students have designed and built a solar tracking array system, a wind turbine, a biofuel reactor, solar powered golf carts and a hydroponics system. Now they are converting an old school bus into a net-zero tiny home — or "cool bus," as they like to call it.

Tymofichuk said there needs to be a shift in teaching as Canada aims to be carbon neutral by 2050.

"We can hit net zero a lot quicker if we lead the way."

National recognition

Tymofichuk, who builds hovercrafts in his spare time, was one of two teachers from across Canada to receive the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence in STEM this fall.

"He's the guy that's a tinkerer. And that excitement and passion then translates to the kids," said principal Danielle Ericksen.

The project goes beyond carpentry by getting math classes to come onto the bus and calculate the amount of flooring needed.

For some students, it's important the focus is on sustainability.

"We have the area to grow and we have the time to change, and if we change now, we can be sustainable for longer," Saruk said.

Students can also work on their own projects in class, such as fixing up their dirt bikes or snowmobiles.

Behind the bus, Grade 8 student Cooper Misik works on his 1971 Motoski Capri. It needs a new hood, secondary clutch and chain case.

"I'm not good at science or math class," he said as he tightened a screw.

"But really this whole machine runs on science."

Attracting students

A few years ago, the number of students attending the Myrnam school was in decline as parents moved to larger centres for work, said Ericksen.

The school principal says that's now changed.

"We definitely have seen growth in the number of kids that are here and staying here, specifically to go to school," Ericksen said.

The school is even impacting the municipality as students attend council meetings to give project updates and share knowledge with local leaders, such as how the village could save 20 per cent on their power bills.

"It's made a big impact with making people realize what we could be here, what we could do," said Mayor Donna Rudolf.

Recently council even passed a bylaw allowing poultry so the school could start raising chickens and selling eggs.

Liam Harrap/CBC
Liam Harrap/CBC

Produce grown from the school's hydroponics system supplies the nearby senior's home and two local restaurants with fresh romaine lettuce. The school also sold three of the solar powered golf carts last year, two of which went to the County of St. Paul to be used in campgrounds. 

The school is still deciding what to do with the tiny home once it's finished, either selling it to pay for future projects or keeping it for school trips and picnics.

Regardless, there are no plans to stop designing and working on new projects.

"I really believe that we empower these young students and they're going to turn into our leaders," Tymofichuk said.