Educational Opportunities Blowing In The Wind

Opinion / November 25, 2009

Alistair Owens

If you were like me perhaps you found much of the educational activities at school boring. Nothing to do with the teaching skills or academic ability – no honestly, in the moments when I was alert I frequently found the subject matter uninteresting because I couldn’t see the  current or future relevance to me. Despite erudite arguments to the contrary, Latin,  French and History found little sway in the Owens intellect. No don’t start, I’ve been there and there is no hope. What did fire me up were  STEM subjects; science, technology engineering and maths – because they all have relevance in my world. They can be great fun and used as green energy games to enthuse children at school.

I spent some time as an Engineering Officer in the merchant navy, for my sins spent in very large crude oil carriers. These leviathans in those days topped 500,000 tons and powered by 150,000 shp engines. The centre of much debate with fellow officers was the relevance of skills. Could the ship still sail without navigation officers or engineers? Without navigators  we could not be sure of where we were going. Without engineers the ship couldn’t go anywhere. Without engineers the ship would not have been built and certainly not  serviced or repaired. The arguments were endless but the outright winner every time was the vital role of engineers. Taking a simplistic view, the only common element with navigators was the necessity of maths!

Think about your day. You get up, have a shower, get dressed have some breakfast and watch the news. That’s enough input. Now analyse how you would have achieved this sequence without engineers. Alarm clock, central heating and hot water, shower pump, clothing manufacturers, electric toaster, and television. All down to engineers in design and manufacture. But what relevance will engineers have in the future? Well they could save the world as we know it. As politicians and scientists gather in Copenhagen to discuss global warming it will be down to the intellect and ability of engineers to solve most of the issues. Perhaps the hot air of the political debate can be harnessed to generate power!

As STEM children leave school  they will be  faced with many challenges, perhaps the most relevant will be renewable energy, a hot topic at the moment but surprisingly around for quite a while. The challenge is to improve the  efficiency of the various sources of renewable power and reduce waste – even though in theory it is free. Take wind energy. *In 1919, German physicist Albert Betz determined a physical limit to the amount of energy a wind turbine can draw from the wind.

His law stated that only 59.3 per cent of the kinetic energy in the wind can be converted to mechanical energy using a wind turbine. His calculations were based on a fluid flowing at a certain speed through an infinitely thin rotor.

Today, some modern wind turbines can approach Betz’s limit, capturing more than 50 per cent of the wind’s available kinetic energy. However, the speed of the wind, the temperature of the air, the sweep area of the blades and the height of the turbine all influence the power generated. (*Engineering and Technology Education Summer 2009).

So engineers of tomorrow in school do you think you can beat Betz’s law? If the efficiency could be raised we would generate more power from each wind turbine for the same operational cost and reduce the number of turbines needed. Quite a challenge but a fantastic outcome and makes all the games in educational  all the more relevant.

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