Along the Divide: Profiles of people, places

When math teacher Amanda Curtis walked into Ace Hardware to buy materials for a student wind energy project, the unexpected hit her.

With a $310 grant from the Butte Education Foundation in hand, Curtis shopped for pvc pipes, dowels and assorted necessities to build blades for model wind turbines.

As she approached the front register to pay, she asked Ace Hardware manager Chris McLaughlin if the store had an educational discount to apply to the $178 bill. McLaughlin replied “yes” and printed the receipt.

“He crumpled it up,” said Curtis, “threw it in the garbage, high-fived me and said, ‘That’s what we do for Butte High around here.’”

“So, basically, he donated the $178 to the Butte Education Foundation, so they’ll have money to fund another grant,” said Curtis, a math teacher at Butte High School.

The Butte Education Foundation makes it possible for teachers like Curtis to integrate innovative lessons and projects into their every day classroom.

McLaughlin said his store regularly donates to such school projects.

“We do it every single possible time that we can help our children out,” said McLaughlin, who has four children in the school district. “If we have the money for that quarter, then we take care of it so they can use the money for that project or expand the project.”

With the help of a nifty NorthWestern Energy-sponsored lesson picked up at a recent MEA/MFT teachers’ conference, Curtis created a “Harness the Wind” project. She will guide students through basic math skills while they figure how to build workable miniature blades for model wind turbines. Students will chart angles, surface areas, length and other specs to create a working blade that turns. They will measure voltage, then use a fan in lieu of natural wind to test blades.

“It’s a model of what happens on a big scale,” she said, adding that part of the scientific method is to learn and make workable adjustments.

“It’s a competition,” said Curtis. “Everyone wants to be the one who gets the most electricity out.”

Ann Finch-Johnston, foundation board member and member of the grant selection committee who has a physics background, knows a little something about the math required to complete such a project. She praised Curtis’ “Harness the Wind” lessons.

“It’s very clever because it integrates math in a very applicable way,” said Finch-Johnston. “I like things that expand the use of the subject to make people think beyond just math.”

The foundation awards one-time only grants, so the winds of change were blowing Curtis’ way.

“It’s the first time we’ve done it,” said Curtis, “So we’ll just do something simple and basic this year. In the future, I should be able to expand the project to comparing the cost of wind energy versus the cost of other forms of energy and really get into a discussion with that.”

Once Curtis’ project is set up, she can pay it forward to other teachers and students who want to catch the wave.

“So after I’m done with it in three weeks, any other teacher in the district can use it,” said Curtis. “You could do this with sixth graders, really. That was the real bang for the buck in the grant.”

Contact Birkenbuel at Renata.Birkenbuel@mtstandard.com or 406-496-5512.

Education Reporter who also covers features at The Montana Standard, I am a Cascade-Ulm-Great Falls native. Originally a sports writer, I wrote for the Missoulian and the Great Falls Tribune. I freelanced for The Seattle Times and other NW publications.

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