Dr. Susan Gibbons: Nurturing the next generation of environmental stewards

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Hear from Block Island’s only science teacher on how she educates her students to respect the environment, and the power of the wind.
It’s rare that a day goes by that I drive from my house to school, past the east side of the island and the ocean, where I don’t turn my head and say. ‘Wow, it’s beautiful here.’
I think most of us spending summers here as children knew that we had something really special going on. We left our homes on the mainland the day school got out, and we went back the day before school went back in. Both my husband and I remember crying on the ferry on the way back home saying ‘Why are we leaving?’ After we married, we wanted to find out how we could make our lives on Block Island year-round. It took a while, but we managed to do it.

I like to visit the city. But the ability to be outside and appreciate the nature around me, the ocean, the fields, the ability to live that way, is important to me. Here on Block Island, I can hear the ocean from my porch – I can even see it from my bedroom. I can wake up, prop up on my pillows and drink a cup of coffee in the morning and be checking ocean conditions without my feet ever having hit the floor.  

The sound and feel of the wind are also significant factors in island life, especially during the winter. Sometimes when we do get low-wind days in the winter, you’ll hear people say, ‘Oh, what’s that? What’s that noise I don’t hear?’ It’s always there, so you only really notice it when it stops. 

It was the same with the diesel generators. They made a lot of noise, but it was only when the power company shut them down – when the wind farm opened – that you suddenly noticed the noise they’d been making. That day, when they shut down, you could just hear a bird singing. I’m sure it had been singing all along, but suddenly it was the only sound.
Susan has a strong connection to Block Island
Susan spending time in nature with her horse

The diesel generators made a lot of noise, but it was only when the power company shut them down – when the wind farm opened – that you suddenly noticed the noise they’d been making. That day, when they shut down, you could just hear a bird singing. I’m sure it had been singing all along, but suddenly it was the only sound.

— Dr. Sue Gibbons

So it’s not like the generators were a huge problem in my life. But as a science teacher, when you think about all that carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the million gallons of diesel we were burning every year – I would feel that when I heard the noise of the generators. Now that it’s stopped, it’s a real relief for me. I love knowing that’s not what’s powering the island any more. I’m a strong voice with my students and anyone else who’ll listen about what an important change the wind farm is for our community.

It’s really important as a teacher on Block Island – and especially as the only science teacher – that our students grow up aware of where they live, their environment. We make a real effort from kindergarten up to 12th grade to involve them with outdoor activities, understanding nature. And that’s much easier to instill in students who live in a place like this, with nature and the weather very much in your face, where you can see it happening right in front of your face. And we end up sending a lot of students off to marine biology, oceanography, environmental science.
Block Island Wind Farm from shore
A big theme in my science classes is that when I ask a question the answer is almost always, energy. In physics, we’re always dealing with the transformation of energy, kinetic to heat, or getting gravitational potential energy to make things happen. The same in biology – all cells are based on respiration, the transformation of energy. And the same in chemistry, when we study chemical reactions, watching energy change. I try to get my students to understand that in the existence of a functioning organism, a functioning Earth, solar system, universe, all of it is driven by energy. You can’t separate the energy that turns on the light from the energy that powers a plant cell. It’s all the same.

And our students understand that on Block Island, the wind is in our DNA. To transform that energy into electricity to run our homes and businesses seems to make good sense. I think most people here feel good that we’re using the wind for that. So when I see the wind turbines, I only see a positive. I see the future.

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