Pedal Power: Bike for “Lungs”

A play concerned with climate change aims for a carbon-neutral performance

MB Theater’s two-person production of the play Lungs (tickets/info) was already ambitious, given that it leans on the considerable talents of just a couple student actors over its 85 minute run-time. The play is also student co-directed. Just as ambitious is the aim to keep the production carbon-neutral. One of the play’s central thematic concerns is human resource use and climate change.

Fourth grade to the rescue! Lower School science teacher Elizabeth Grumbach had already planned for the class to be doing a power unit to start the year. Following a summer meeting between theater instructor Steve Kidd, they hatched a plan for the 4th grade to create a “Pedal Power” initiative as a hands-on way to learn more about power generation and carbon-free energy. The solution: using bike-generated electricity stored in different batteries. (MB community members, check your email for links to help. Parents/guardians: check MB Weekly)

“Steve told me about the project, and we brainstormed what it would take,” says Elizabeth. “I told Steve how the 4th grade does a whole energy unit in the fall, so this would mesh with them. I adapted the curriculum a little bit so that they would learn about energy and energy transformations at the very beginning and they could come up with a plan.”

The 4th graders contemplated the challenge of powering the play’s lights and sound without fossil fuels. Their initial solution was to create a bike generator which would be pedaled throughout the show. That could work, Elizabeth told them, but the bikes produce too much noise. So she prompted the students to explore ways to generate power before the performance, which would require filling batteries with energy prior to and in-between each show.

Elizabeth thanks some key collaborators in helping to develop a way to do this: her brother who is a physicist offered many ideas, Y-Lab Director David Husted helped to put all of the pieces together, and Assistant Head of School Debbie Phipps pointed to the The Goddard Fund for Student Projects as a means for funding (a gift by late Art Goddard ’59 and his wife Mary Ellen). This was definitely a team effort!

“I found this company online that makes the generator part,” she says, a very small company started by an engineer and his brother. They helped Elizabeth acquire the needed pieces, and then David Husted took the materials and assembled them.

With the required gear on hand and ready for use (two bikes, two generators, two batteries), the 4th graders realized they would need a lot of people to pedal! So, they hatched a plan to promote the project throughout the community and look for volunteers across the school: middle and upper schoolers, MB sports teams, faculty and staff, even parents have been taking their turns on the bike. It’s been an inspiring community effort centered in MB’s Woodman Center lobby. See the full video appeal made by 4th grade:

Middle schoolers have been frequently seen doing their pedaling part and have learned some important environmental lessons as well. As fifth grader Ella F. says, “if we use more electricity, it could cause more climate change, but charging the battery [via people-power] uses less electricity.”

The play’s two lead actors, Alice and Reese, along with Steve Kidd, also attended a meeting with MB’s Sustainability Committee to discuss the bike-powered production, and how to make the performance an environmental learning experience. Beyond a discussion about how to generate interest in helping to pedal the bikes, plans are underway to distribute information at the performances about living a more sustainable lifestyle.

As another example of engagement, MB Athletics have used social media to spread the word about helping out, such as the varsity girls soccer team taking a bit of practice time to add some juice to the batteries.

For a show of only two actors, a small production team, and a small carbon footprint, the collaborative community engagement footprint has been very large indeed.