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Zach Berzolla ’18 taught a winter term course in which students designed an elementary school powered by renewable energy. The class has entered their design in a U.S. Department of Energy competition.

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Students Design Zero-Energy Elementary School for Department of Energy Competition

February 13, 2018

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – It’s day nine of Zero-Energy School Design, the only student-led course this winter term.

There’s a hushed intensity to the goings-on in Room 405 of Johnson Memorial Building. Students sit at drafting tables, some singly, some in groups; some working silently, some engaged in quiet conversations. All problem solving.

Pinned-up sketches, photos, documents, and ideas cover an entire wall.

This classroom has been transformed into the headquarters of a multifaceted design team.

“What if the entire library was sunken and we had a ramp here?” one architectural subgroup member asks, pointing to a schematic drawing.

“Do you think you could model a single classroom to help us figure out the lighting and the windows?” someone asks the energy modeler.

“What’s the total square footage on the building?” asks the code and safety specialist, who then plugs that number into two massive code and safety documents.

Zach Berzolla ’18 goes over design details with members of his J-term course. The students hope to make it to the final round in the ‘Race to Zero’ competition.

The challenge before them? Design a new super–energy efficient and 100 percent–renewably powered re-envisioning of local grade school Mary Hogan Elementary. That’s the “zero” in zero energy: an extremely efficient building powered by its own renewable energy. By consensus, students have also decided to enter their school design in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Race to Zero Student Design Competition, and they’re working feverishly toward their next deadline of February 20. If they make it through the first round, they’ll compete with other semifinalists in Colorado later this spring.

At the center of this hive of activity stands senior Zach Berzolla, both project leader and course instructor. He’s a physics major who’s also minoring in environmental studies, who’s also enrolled in a dual degree program with Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering. He’ll get his Middlebury BA this May and a Dartmouth Bachelor of Engineering in 2019.

For Berzolla, renewable energy is “our ticket forward. What coal was to the Industrial Revolution, renewables are to the 21st century. I am firmly convinced that there are ways to get to 100 percent renewables. It’s a challenge, and it will take a lot of work, but it can be done. All of my studies and all of my work has been focused on how do we get there.”

Berzolla is passionate about zero-energy buildings—schools, especially.

“Schools have such an opportunity to impact all the students who are studying in them—the students this year and the students next year and the students for the whole building’s lifetime. Not only are they moving and learning in a healthier environment, they’re learning about renewables. They’re learning about efficiency. And they will hopefully carry that forward.”

Indeed, Berzolla himself first got interested in sustainably powered buildings as a middle schooler growing up in Connecticut.

Gigi Miller ’18, a joint computer science and studio art major, presents the Middlebury team’s findings and design concepts at Franklin Environmental Center at the end of winter term.

“My middle school was building a brand new building, and they aimed for LEED Platinum. It was cool because we moved into half of the school, and they were still building the other half. The walls were still wide open, so you got to see everything that was going into the building. It was transformational.”

At the heart of Berzolla’s class is knowledge and expertise gained his junior year while working as a Science Undergraduate Laboratory intern at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. At NREL, Berzolla was assigned to research existing zero-energy schools nationwide and to analyze the barriers each community had overcome to build, retrofit, or operate a zero-energy school.

Berzolla’s research helped inform the work of the DOE’s newly launched Schools Accelerator program, which aims to make K–12 zero-energy schools both feasible and mainstream nationwide.

 “Zach made a tremendous impact researching the barriers associated with zero-energy schools,” said NREL’s Kim Tremblath. “I find it exciting that he is continuing in this field and using his leadership skills to share his knowledge with others.”

Porting that knowledge into a winter term class got a jump start when Middlebury Director of Sustainability Integration Jack Byrne learned about the DOE’s Race to Zero competition. He nudged Berzolla to apply.

“Zach had worked on an ambitious J-term project in 2015 to assess the feasibility of a microgrid for the campus,” said Byrne. “He and another student then copresented with me at a national sustainability conference later that year, and they wowed the audience of professionals with their mastery of the topic. When I saw the Race to Zero challenge, Zach naturally came to mind.”

Berzolla thought a project-based class would be a good way to approach the issue, so he ran his ideas past a mentor professor equally interested in renewable energy and then passed the curricular vetting process with flying colors.

Faculty sponsor Will Amidon describes Berzolla as, quite simply, “a powerhouse.”

“He has a remarkable background in engineering and energy, so he’s very well versed in the topic,” said Amidon. “He’s also extremely self-motivated. Here’s a guy who says he’s going to do this, and he comes back with a four-page syllabus loaded with readings, videos, incredible details, and thought that clearly as a professor you look at this and say, ‘This did not take you two hours.’ Because as a professor you know how long it takes.”

Amidon feels that his main contributions as teaching mentor have been in course planning.

“My first response to Zach’s syllabus was ‘You’ve got to cut half of this material because this is way too much.’”

He also suggested diving in on the main project from week one, and he highlighted some lessons learned in group dynamics from his years in the classroom.

The project-based nature of the class leads to its own kind of learning, noted Amidon.

“When you watch the conversations they’re having, you see both the content they’re learning but also the intangible skills like problem solving, good team dynamics, collaboration.”

Those enrolled are enthusiastic about the opportunity to focus on a common project and the heightened sense of ownership when the teacher is also a peer.

“It makes me feel like I have more freedom to explore,” said geography and environmental studies major Maria Abragan ’18. “There’s also a feeling of he’s a student, I’m a student, and we collaborate in this. So there’s a higher agency on my side and more responsibility.”

The stakes are high, observes physics major Amanda Kirkeby ’19, “because we’re wanting to make this really cool school. But all of it is coming from us. Even though Zach is teaching, he’s also a student, and all of this has come from his knowledge and passion for green energy. So that makes the workflow between groups a little more natural.”

“Everyone’s doing this project because they want to be doing it," said environmental policy major Ry Storey-Fisher ’18. “We’re all working towards that same goal.”

Berzolla says the class discussions are what he most enjoys about teaching so far. He gives the example of an assignment in which everyone analyzed and summarized best practices in the NREL case studies.

“That was really cool for me because there are pieces that people picked out that I hadn’t even seen before—and I pored over these documents.

“The joy,” said Berzolla, “is learning from other people.”

Whether or not Berzolla and company’s zero-energy Mary Hogan Elementary ever gets built, the benefits of this particular class extend well beyond the classroom.

 “Zach’s J-term class provides a perfect opportunity for students to contribute their educational talents to better solutions that meet the climate challenge,” said Byrne. “This is a win-win because the students advance their skills and capabilities, and society gains new talent and ideas.”

By Gaen Murphree; Photos by Todd Balfour