Seasons / The Schoolyard

BTUs, Student Age, and Academic Subjects: Notes towards a new theory of elementary school heating.

The school building is cold—again.  That is, the rest of the building is cold. My office and Mrs. Thomas’s office are saunas.  But Bill McWeeny’s room is glacial (yesterday it was a sauna); so is the art room. We’ve come to expect the lobby to be cold, given the constant traipsing in and out during the day, and the doors that leak. So I scout the other classrooms and test the little white control dials on the radiators: open. “Control,” however, is a misnomer! The pipes are hot, but the rooms are cold. The thermostats on the walls are vestiges of the former heating system—they do nothing, now.

The “new” system is rapidly becoming an old system and the subject of much analysis. Circulator pumps working? Check. Burner going? Check. Supply valves open to the radiators? Check. Then why’s it so cold? Eighth graders start showing up in my office wearing parkas and looking for BTUs—no room here, alas. Poor Mrs. Bertrand is teaching her three math groups in the lobby wearing gloves.  I call the service company.

Rusty arrives promptly with his bucket of wrenches to check on today’s frigid conditions, and heads straight to Bill’s room and the control knob by the backdoor. Our conversation turns to drafts and unheated spaces and insulation for the basement. Perhaps an external wood-fired furnace would help? There are alternatives to oil-fired burners, but at what cost. Pay-back ratios and the geo-political fuel nexus filter into the discussion of how to keep Adams School kids comfortable as they crunch numbers and expand their syntax repertoire. I shut a few hallway doors to try and control drafts in the building—about the only thing that can be attempted quickly and cheaply…until a comment from Deb Belyea, our art teacher, opens a unique line of inquiry.

“I try and get the big kids or larger groups down here first thing in the morning,” she said, leaning against the radiator in the art room. “They produce a lot more heat.”

I should have known. The solution is not unlike the famous Paul Manning Ice Cream/calorie Coefficient: “the colder the ice cream, the more calories are burned off while consuming it.” Therefore, the colder the ice cream the more you can eat because the process of consuming it counters the effect of the high caloric intake. Simple. Patrons of the Castine Variety have known this for years.

Therefore, Nelson’s Elementary School Heating Coefficient Hypothesis goes like this: The colder the building, the harder you need to study to burn the calories necessary to heat the building.

Now the question is, which subjects produce the most BTUs, factoring for age and body mass. Since no two learners are alike, I’m guessing that the answer will be “your favorite subject.” Thus, multiple intelligences and learning styles are automatically factored in. Here’s the good news: Adams School has plenty of heat–if the situation is correctly analyzed.

My research suggests that our art room full of ten or so enthusiastic second and third graders weaving yarn tapestries, for example, produces sufficient BTUs to heat 120% of that space. Fifth graders doing multiplication facts produce even more heat. Six, seventh and eighth graders, factoring for greater mass and more complex brain activity, produce so much heat that were it electricity we could sell it back to the CMP grid. And we’re just a little elementary school.  Who knew that the education system in this country was sitting atop a latent energy reserve greater than the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge!

The technical equation is as follows: W=(S/m)(C/T), where W is warmth, S is number of students over mass, C is curriculum and T is duration of activity. Here’s a simpler way to describe the phenomenon: Desire to learn is heat. Clearly, we will leave no child behind in a chilly classroom….and keep the ice cream good and cold.


Todd R. Nelson was principal of the Adams School in Castine. First published in The Elsworth American.

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