Staff and students of Rothesay Elementary School have big dreams for their new geothermal greenhouse – the first in the province at a school, according to community school coordinator Becky MacKay.
"The geothermal aspect will be great for budding engineers because we're going to have to be monitoring the heat and the flow of air going in and out of the ground," said MacKay, who organized the project and applied for the government funding that made it possible.
"We plan to grow vegetables and flowers. We want to try some hydroponics so using water only to grow."
Funded by a federal government grant called the New Horizons for Seniors Program, the greenhouse collects heat stored under the ground in pipes, using the heat as an "earth battery" in the winter months, MacKay said. The goal is to be able to grow fruits and vegetables – even tropical fruits – in a more sustainable way throughout the winter months.
"In the summer, we're pushing the warm air down into the earth and in the winter, we are bringing that warm air that is stored beneath," she explained. "It's an experiment. This will be our first year to see if we have enough stored in the ground to see if we can go every month through the winter."
The greenhouse is located at the front of the school and is about 95 per cent complete. Staff spent July and August clearing the land and digging 10 feet into the ground to lay the tubes for the geothermal pump, then built the greenhouse in time for the return to school in September.
Neil Vanderlaan, with Belleisle Gardens Greenhouse Nursery, got involved in the project by helping build the greenhouse with the geothermal infrastructure. He further explained how it harnesses thermal energy, providing an inexpensive way to heat the greenhouse and grow crops inexpensively in the winter.
As the greenhouse heats up in the day, he said it pumps the hot air down through the pipes below the ground. Then, as the greenhouse cools down at night, that hot air is pumped up to keep the vegetation warm.
"Essentially, what we're looking for is that it provides relatively free heat," he said. "All we're doing is running two small fans, so your power bill is almost nothing.
"If I can have a greenhouse in Canada with free heat or relatively free heat then that changes everything," Vanderlaan added. "Right now, it's not affordable to grow certain crops all winter long, or it's hard or expensive because you're pumping so much heat into it."
Getting students outdoors and learning by getting their hands dirty, as they will be in the greenhouse, is part of a trend in education called experiential learning.
"It's not a move from academics, it's a move with academics," MacKay said. "We'll be able to incorporate science, math with measurement, citizenship with our seniors coming in. All sorts of academic subjects."
MacKay said Phase 3 of the three-phase project involves programming with seniors.
"We hope to have seniors in there by day, maybe in the evening, teaching students what they know," she said. "Maybe transplanting and cutting and caring for the plants, seeding. The ones who are really comfortable might want to teach a class.
"It's just a working connection garden where we have all ages working together and communicating and connecting."
Robin Grant, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal