Monday, October 18, 2010

The Green School, Bali, Indonesia

Today I visited the The Green School of Bali, Indonesia. I have watched developments at this school unfold online since it’s conception in 2007, and always daydreamed that someday this would be a place where I would spend some of my career. I am drawn to both Bali and the school; Bali is an island of stunning cultural, historical and natural beauty and The Green School is a school of outstanding principles built on solid foundations of sustainability and global stewardship. The school is also dedicated to providing numerous scholarship opportunities to local Balinese children. The school is open for public tours on Mondays and Wednesdays at 3pm. The Green School has received a lot of international media coverage because of its educational philosophy, its experiential teaching and learning practices and is awe-inspiring structural design. Many famous people have come across the threshold bamboo bridge, a little like tumbling down the rabbit hole, entering into the magical school setting in the middle of the Balinese jungle.

Our tour guide, Ben, has been a part of the Green School team since 2008. Originally from the United States, I quickly learn that he is well travelled and even more aptly versed, in many languages.  He greets and welcomes all members of the tour in their native language, from English to Mandarin to Japanese to French to Malay to Indonesian.

The tour begins on the bridge above the Ayung River, but soon we are walking through a very tall rice paddy. One of the visitors asks, "Why the rice is so tall?" and Ben explains that the rice, which is grown organically and cared for by the students, is a native Balinese rice, a variety that almost no one grows anymore, even in Bali. Ben elaborates with a descriptive explanation of an integrated inquiry that all grades at the school participate in where the students grow rice, learn the history and cultural significance of rice in Bali, host rice ceremonies with local villagers and then eventually harvest and eat their rice.

We continue on to the edge of the river where we observe a pretty large water vortex. Built by the school and supposedly the second of its size in the world, this electricity-generating vortex is a fish friendly way to harness kinetic energy from a river or stream. This system was originally designed by Austrian engineer Franz Zotlöterer. It channels a small portion water from the side of the stream, where it enters a toilet-bowl shaped funnel containing a large, slow-moving water wheel. Unlike traditional hydroelectric power generation, this system does not work on a pressure differential, it draws the energy simply form the dynamic force of the spiraling water which exits the vortex back into the stream. Awesome!

Moving on along a lava rock pathway (one of many on campus), we pass the senior student-built 3-story clubhouse (part of a hands-on design lesson focused on integrating math, physics and architecture). Further up the hillside, we see the student support center and head into a high school classroom overlooking the river. Here we learn the origins of the Green School. For the quick version please check out the history section of the Green School website which explains how its founders, Jon Hardy and his wife Cynthia, created the Green School. The Hardys were inspired to give something back to the people of  Bali, a paradise which they have called home for 35 years, and an island which inspired and supported them along their road to success creating the globally successful John Hardy Jewelry empire. The school was created with a passion for everything local, and it is the local environment which most obviously informed thier decisions along the way. Holistic education consultant, Alan Wagstaff as well as Jurgen Zimmer, a professor at the Free University in Berlin, helped develop the educational philosophy and curriculum design of the school in tits beginning stages. The Hardys also set up a bamboo construction company just down the river from the Green School site which was commissioned to design and build all structural features of the school. You can tell this place was conceived by a union by artists and skilled tradesmen. The bamboo furniture throughout the school captures the intricate insides of bamboo design with careful lines and attention to textures, creating a simple and natural beauty.

The tour guide then takes us into a few homeroom classrooms, which were much larger than I'd imagined. I love the reused car windshields, painted white and used as white boards throughout the school. Each lower school classroom, with a cap of 25 students, has its own cool-down area for days when the jungle just gets too hot and sweaty. It turns out that Jon Hardy, in the early 70's, graduated from art college in Canada and had a passion for inflatable architecture. Inside each completely open-air classroom there is an inflatable canvas dome set on top of a miniature classroom pit, well equipped with an air conditioner, bench seating and performance/teaching space for an entire class. Very neat.

Over the course of the next 2 hours we are guided though the rest of the campus which includes the recreational sports area, with kids playing on a field with bamboo soccer goals as well as under a large thatched complex with bamboo basketball hoops, and a we take peak into the Performing Arts center where an after school African drumming workshop is taking place and the large African Mariba and Gamelan ensemble is displayed to one side. We learn about the traditional mud pit and spectator area used for Indonesian ceremonies, school performances as well as practicing other international forms of martial arts. We walk through the healing center of the school, designated as such by an authentic dowser from Astralia who also found water for all of the school's wells. The healing circle is marked with a giant brown crystal from Brazil embedded in the earth (think the size of a dog house). We look in on the endangered bird breeding cages and Green Camp gardens before arriving at the "Heart of School" in the glow of late afternoon light. The Heart of School is a stunning 3-story tripple building comprising offices, students study areas, the library, computer lab and resource area, fine arts studios and open lounging space where an afternoon yoga class is happening as we arrive. The Heart is the largest bamboo building in Asia, and possibly the world. It is breathtaking to stand in the center, climb up and down the 3 staircases in your bare feet and be encompassed by a human-made building that so distinctly resembles a bamboo forest with all the perfect lines and angles.

Among the things we didn't see, but learned about nonetheless, were the school's composting toilets of which students have been experimenting with methane extraction as a renewable energy source, an on-site recycling program, Balinese black sows that digest all the school's organic waste, as well as countless bio-intensive gardens which are managed by staff and students to create food for the entire school. The school is also serviced, campus-wide, with wifi. 

The Green School has had its share of ups and downs. Far from being financially sound, even with the support from their founders and the general visiting public, they continue to struggle to make ends meet. From starting out a few months before the economic meltdown in 2008, ironing out the kinks that are inevitable in starting a brand new school in the middle of the Balinese jungle, to constantly changing staff and changing student body, it is a wonder that they have gotten to where they are already. The school has received its share of global attention, both for its innovative ideas, its core values and educational philosophy, and its unique place in our world, creating global citizens and leaders of the future. John Hardy spoke about the school at TEDGlobal in England this past summer and many people have been, seen and reported on the fascinating and inspiring school culture that is emerging from within the magical jungle paradise. What a place! If you ever have the chance to see it in person, I highly recommend checking it out.

This is a photoset of pictures by Build Back Better on Flickr 

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Einstein's Dream Come True

I remember when I was younger, the bestselling book, Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman, spent a few months on our family room coffee table. It inspired many conversations with friends and family and I, a teenager at the time, was especially intrigued because its ideas were represented in such a way that I could grasp them, even if only slightly more significantly, than the ones in my high school science textbooks. Each chapter of Einstein's Dreams being a fanciful rendition of a proposed daydream which Einstein, as a young scientist himself in 1905, likely could have delved into considering his intimate contemplations with time and relativity at that time.

A memory that has stuck with me involves one of its 30 chapters, a chapter about people experiencing time differently depending on the altitude at which they live on Earth. My first interpretation was that people at higher altitudes who make a larger orbit as the earth spins on its axis, would obviously experience time more slowly. With this rationale, people living in valleys making a smaller orbit and would experience time faster than those living up high. For my own proof, I imagined a race track where 2 people, one on the inner track and one on the outer track,  set out to walk one complete lap with the finish line representing death. Who would get there first? The person on the inside, of course. To me, that meant that the people in the valleys (the inner track) would experience time more quickly and therefore live shorter lives. So you can understand my perplexed reaction when I was told that my ideas were in complete opposition to Einstein's theory of general relativity.

As my mother desperately tried to explain that the reverse of my postulation was in fact more in-line with the theory of general relativity, she used one of Einstein's Dreams to illustrate her point. In this dream (based on gravitational time dilation, which is the effect of time passing at different rates in regions where the gravitational potential if different; the lower the gravitational potential (i.e. closer to the center of a massive object), the more slowly time passes) people flock to the valleys in order to live longer lives and eventually, the valleys become crowded civilizations devoid of beauty. Meanwhile a few people, willing to trade the romance of an extended life for the serenity and peacefulness of the mountains, live happier and more contently, albeit for a shorter lifespan at the peaks. At least, that's how I remember my mother recounting the chapter; how close that is to Lightman's description is up for obvious debate. In the end, it all still made little sense to me and seemed intuitively contradictory.

Today I was tickled to stumble upon this recent article, Einstein's theory is proved - and it's bad news if you own a penthouse. Turns out that some scientists at the US National Institute of Standards & Technology have proved Einstein's predictions by placing atomic clocks at different heights and recording their lapsed differences. Their results? Well it looks like a person will age 90 billionths of a second faster (per average lifespan) for every foot above the ground in which they live. Not to be surprised by these findings, because it was never a matter of actually proving Einstein right. There's absolutely no need to do that. What's amazing is that with modern technology we can systematically prove that Einstein was right, just over a hundred years since he was daydreaming about time and space... completely unaware of what lay ahead for the world of science and technology. If he could be here now, what would he be dreaming about?

For further reading, buy the book. Alternatively, here are a couple excerpts from Random House.