Students tackle real-world problems at new Navy Yard school

    The sprawling three-story mansion in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard that houses the new Sustainability Workshop looks nothing like a typical high school. That’s exactly the point.

    “It’s funny, when we took tours, Penn State had classroom space we could use and everyone thought we’d use that,” said Simon Hauger, founder and one of the school’s two teachers. “When we walked into this building, everyone fell in love with it immediately.”

    For years, Hauger has helped students design hybrid cars under the auspices of the after-school West Philly Hybrid X Team. The team has met with national success, designing models that beat out those of college and professional teams at competitions. Hauger has dreamed of bringing that project-based, high-tech learning into the classroom full time. Now, it is happening inside the old mansion.

    Twenty-nine seniors from three Philadelphia high schools will spend much of the next year on real-world problems surrounding energy efficiency and climate change, such as reducing energy use in their own school or increasing the efficiency of school bus routes.

    Hauger said those skills will give his students a leg up in the growing green economy.

    “It truly is the future economy and we think our children need to be on the forefront of that,” Hauger said. “They need to be on the cusp of that, not getting invited in after all the good jobs are filled.”

    Meloney Sutherland, 17, from South Philadelphia High School, said she is already learning time-management skills that should help in college.

    “I think it’s better (than traditional classes) because it really prepares you for the real world,” Sutherland said. “You’re not going to have someone stand over you 24/7 telling you what to do. You know what you’re supposed to be doing, so get it done.”

    The workshop is privately funded for the next two years. By 2013, Hauger said he hopes it will become a charter school or part of the Philadelphia School District.

    At a welcoming ceremony Monday, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter praised the school’s students, drawing parallels between the school’s mission and his own vision to make the city the greenest in the nation.

    “You make us very, very proud, and you’re the young people that many of us will be talking about for weeks and months and years to come, because you’re going to be the future,” Nutter said.

    At the ceremony, Nutter gave the students an assignment in accordance with a similar vision for the city: Gather baseline data on energy usage at the school and then set a goal to reduce it by 10 to 30 percent over the next year.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.