Hands-On Science

making biodiesel

The biodiesel crew demonstrate how they make biofuel (Michael Friedman).

The future of U.S. energy consumption starts with its children. At Wissahickon Charter School (WCS) in Philadelphia, some students are getting a hands-on education in alternative energy along with their course work in environmental studies and the physical sciences. Michael Friedman, a science teacher at WCS, has created a biodiesel curriculum in which students make their own fuel from leftover grease provided by a local restaurant. In the three years since the program’s inception, the students have shifted focus from the production of biodiesel to the education of their community. Former Chemical Heritage editor Eleanor Goldberg talked with Friedman to find out more about what his students have learned.


EG: Aside from the general environmental benefits of biodiesel, what are the main advantages of teaching kids how to process biodiesel?

MF: The environmental benefits of brewing biodiesel are not clear-cut. In the process of making the fuel, the kids have an opportunity to think about how biodiesel might fit into our society. One of the goals is for the kids to become citizens of their community, who don’t take what they hear at face value, but dig a little deeper. Science is often construed as a black-and-white discipline. But real science is done in the gray area.

EG: How do you define the gray area? And what do you mean when you say real science?

MF: Science is accomplished through argument. Principles and theories that now seem self-evident were once contested. The action of doing science returns us to the gray area. When we make biodiesel we’re learning from what other people did in their experiments, adapting their methods to fit our apparatus, and trying to improve upon the process. Beyond the doing of science, there is the gray area of the benefits—should we be doing the science? Making biodiesel encourages the kids to evaluate this fuel according to their own values and ask whether it makes practical, economic, and environmental sense to them.

EG: Describe the curriculum and the steps you’ve taken to develop the project and to build interest in it.

MF: It started about two years ago in our science class. We were focused on the issue of energy. We started by looking at energy needs and the geopolitics of energy. Then we looked at global warming and the carbon cycle, which led to an idea: we could close the carbon-dioxide loop and even close the recycling loop by using waste oil to make fuel. We made small batches of biodiesel in class and then asked, “What did we just do?” That’s when we got into the chemistry. Then I asked if anyone was interested in taking this to the next level. A group of eight students (five sixth graders and three seventh graders) volunteered, and we started meeting after school to build a processor.