The Future of Schooling: Self-Sustaining, Student-Operated Farms that Run on a Closed System:
By: Chris A
America has become very polarized in recent years. On the one hand, we have produced some of the most exceptional individuals on the planet. Individuals like Michael Jordan, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk persist as shining examples of the supposed meritocracy in America that allows the “most capable citizens” to rise to the top of their field. Even if they are not born here (in Elon Musk’s case for instance), people with exceptional talent or drive can come to America and not only change their own lives, but impact people’s lives all over the world.
However, on the other hand we have seemingly forgotten about huge portions of our citizens who have not been so lucky. Many Americans without a college education have very few options with regards to employment and quality of life. Many of them must also face the cruel realty that their job could potentially be outsourced to another country or become automated by a machine (which is actually a bigger worry these days).
Something is horribly wrong here. How can we be progressing as a nation if we have huge portions of voting age citizens who actually wish for the country to go backwards in time by “making America great again?” The people in this country who drive trucks, work in factories and repair internal combustion engine cars are no less valuable than the people who create technology to make these jobs obsolete. But one of these two groups will be far worse off in the next 20 years than the other if we don’t do something soon. We need to stop looking at the displaced members of our society as merely statistics, and start looking at them as people; people with value; people with huge stores of potential energy just waiting to be tapped. If you start looking at people this way, then it really seems that we are drastically under-utilizing our resources in this country.
So…what can we do about it?
Usually the political debate over how best to combat this problem involves one of two solutions: job creation, and education reform.
Are new jobs the solution? Well where would they come from? It doesn’t make sense for firms to make jobs “out of thin air.” Jobs cost money, and it really only makes sense for a company to pay you if they perceive that you are providing them with value. The kinds of new jobs that will likely be created by our changing economy will likely only go to people who are either very gifted from a young age, or have gotten a college education.
So, is education the solution? For some people yes. College can be an incredible tool for social mobility and self-improvement, especially for low-income and first generation students. Unfortunately, the prospect of taking out huge student loans for four years, at the expense of not being able to work right out of high school does not seem logical for many young people. Especially when the information you learn at most schools will not necessarily ever be useful to you in a future job.
What if there was a way to do both?
What if you could run a business who’s central purpose, outside of being self-sustaining, was educating people in something that was both relevant to their life, and also useful to them in the future? What if this business was run so efficiently that it could afford to let all students come for free, and could carefully select students based purely on merit, potential, or simply a desire to learn and better oneself, and not at all based on ability to pay?
A place like this is possible, and it is exactly what I want to build with the time I have on this earth.
My dream is to build a self-sufficient farm school that produces everything its inhabitants need on its own and is run almost entirely by the students who attend the school. The first school would likely be set on the 150 acres of undeveloped land that my family owns in rural Georgia.
Before I can ever hope to start educating students for free in a way that would be at all useful to them, I need to first create a profitable business that I can expand into a school. My project would start off as a small solar farm, who’s primary goal was making solar panels as cheaply and efficiently as possible. I would sell the energy my farm produced back to the electrical grid, and invest all the money I made back into the farm so that I could slowly scale up, and hopefully earn the attention of some potential investors.
I imagine trying to seek the attention of two kinds of investors. Venture capitalists who hope to make a profit off of the increasing economic viability of renewable energy, and also philanthropic donors who, like myself, are fed up with the inefficient way our modern school system is run and want to do something about it. The former investors will likely expect a return on their investment, while the latter would look at my project as a social business, and expect to only receive back their initial dividend payment and nothing more. I actually think it is best for the farm to work this way, because the students and teachers of the community would have pressure on them to continue to innovate the farm and make it more profitable, but at the same time I would have some more wiggle room to work with than traditional companies with regards to funding.
Once I had a sustainable business model, and reliable investors I would move on with the real project . I would move forward with development with two goals in mind: minimize resource usage, and create a closed system.
What would the classroom look like?
I imagine that the kind of infrastructure that I would need in place on the land would cost more money initially and take more time to set up than a typical development project. That is because I am interested in making the most efficient site for learning, living and sleeping that I can. This structure would be so efficient that it could not even be classified as a building. Most buildings today are so horribly run that using the word limits one’s thinking about what a living space has potential to do.
I imagine a structure that is more like a living thing than an inanimate pile of rubble. It would mimic many of the biological functions that make humans, plants and animals so efficient. For starters, the structure would breath in fresh air rather than generating cool and warm air artificially. The walls would be ventilated so that air from the outside is made to enter and exit the living space of the structure. The air would be cooled on its way in by a system of water tubing that circulates chilled water through the concrete in the walls (much like the engineering design at Apple Park).
Secondly, I would need a structure that sleeps and wakes with the changing atmosphere, and requires sunlight to replenish itself. The ceiling of the structure would open up during the day, letting in natural sunlight through the luminescent windows underneath it. Eventually, solar panels would be rigged to the parts of the floor that get the most sunlight, and this would help power many of the structure’s daily functions (although it would still probably require energy generated elsewhere on the farm as well in order to function properly). When night comes around, the ceiling would close up while the house would go to sleep. Artificial light fixtures in the house would still run using power generated during the day, but would shut down promptly at 12 O’clock to save electricity (and also so that the students would have to go to sleep with the house).
Finally, just like most living things that exist on land, the house would require water on a daily basis. But, unlike the buildings most people live in that drink far more than they need, the house would function much more like living organisms who drink only enough water to sustain their daily functions. The toiletries and bath utilities in the house would be engineered to use as little water as possible, while simulating a similar experience to normal utilities. Showers could use warm light as well as water in order to create the similar experience of taking a shower while using only a fraction of the liquid. The left over bath water would be recycled and used to serve other functions in the house (such as the natural air conditioning system described above). This kind of infrastructure would require far less energy usage than traditional buildings, and, if designed correctly, should function just as well – if not better.
The inside of the structure would also need to have a life of its own so that it could adapt to multiple different learning environments. I do not have the space or resources at my disposal to make separate centers for different kinds of learning ventures the way other schools do. I would thereby need to build an adaptable space that can switch back and forth between multiple different settings. Ideally, the classroom could also be the school gymnasium, the science lab, even the movie theater – just by swapping some furniture around using the school’s central mainframe. It would be more than a smart house – it would actually be alive!
What would people eat? How would they interact with the environment around them?
The last order of business for the farm school would be designing the ecosystem that would sustain the students and teachers inhabiting the school. Remember, the location would need to be a closed system and therefore all of the life bred on the farm would have to add utility to the community in usually more than one way. I don’t imagine this as a system where different forms of livestock are raised separately in small, cramped cages until they are ultimately consumed by the farm’s human inhabitants, rather I see this as a situation where each individual living organism serves some purpose in the success of the ecosystem as a whole that is entirely separate from human consumption. Essentially, the farm would be the most efficient artificial ecosystem ever created.
This might sound utopian, impossible and even unethical, but it is actually very plausible. Artificial ecosystems such as this already exist on commercial aquaponic farms. These farms vary from location to location, but they essentially work by recycling the fecal matter of fish, and using the nutrients within the waste to feed plants hydroponically.
The ethics of such an operation is tricky. On the one hand North America is already an example of an artificial ecosystem. Many of the wild trees and flowers that make up our forests were brought over from Europe at some point (either intentionally or accidentally), and almost none of the livestock that we breed commercially is native to the continent. However, it is the 21st century, and I would need to strongly take into consideration how the life I bred on the farm would affect the habitats nearby before moving forward with the operation.
What would the students even learn about?
You’re probably wondering why I haven’t mentioned education at all since the beginning of this post. What are the students going to learn about on this farm? Why couldn’t they learn this somewhere else? Doesn’t it seem like a whole lot of trouble just to avoid trade?
The reason that the educational elements of my farm require so much less explaining than the actual makeup of the farm itself is because the farm is the thing students will study. Rather than simulating experiments that happen in nature in a cold classroom settings, students will use the knowledge they learn about the multiple ways that the farm operates to help maintain the ecosystem, energy usage, financial analytics, and community functions of the farm.
Students interested in biology would learn only about the types of species that exist on the property, why they were selected (out of literally thousands of other choices), and what function they serve in the closed ecosystem. These students would also be the primary ones in charge of maintaining the ecosystem.
Meanwhile, students interested in engineering, architecture, and technology would learn primarily about the specifications of the main structure on the farm (its water and energy usage primarily). Based on their interests they might also learn about the farm’s solar panels, the architecture of the main structure, and the technology used in the house and around the farm.
Even those students interested in the humanities would have an integral part on the farm. These students would take classes such as the history of tools, modern political economy, and human ecology. Lesson plans would situate the the social elements of the farm (including the tools and processes used on it) within a historical, literary, or political/economic lens. Students would be able to use the central methodological frameworks taught to branch out into their own topics and areas of inquiry.
How would the farm make money?
For this project to be run right it is not going to be a cheap or easy undertaking, and for it to grow the kind of scale I hope for (where I can create similar farms at different locations), I would need to be able to show consistent growth. Another business might deal with this problem of how to make money by hiring trained professionals, but that is far too extravagant of a luxury for me, and it is also unnecessary.
I believe that the students on the farm could also be responsible for making the farm more profitable. Truly exceptional students will be tasked with making the farm run more efficiently and cost-effectively. For instance, students interested in engineering and solar power could look at data analytics from the current energy cells utilized on the farm and propose ways to build new panels that are cheaper (panels that can be built with local materials for instance) or more energy efficient. Similarly, students interested in the central engineering of the main structure could propose ways to make the structure use less resources or get the most out of the resources available. Finally, those students with a drive to make money could run many of the functions of the business office themselves – saving both me labor costs and at the same time giving them experience.
I would likely ask some of the most exceptional or dedicated students to remain on the farm as a permanent member – eventually to become a teacher for future students. However, I would want the majority of the students enrolled to be able to leave my farm after their experience is up (not sure about how long term length would be yet), and be able to move seamlessly into a new setting where they can productively exercise the skills they’ve learned. Whether that be as an employee, a full-time student at another college or graduate school, a student athlete, or a start up CEO. I hope that students can leave the farm prepared for anything and everything.
What Social Good Would The Farm Be Responding Too?
The most important thing about this farm school, in my mind, is that it would largely be aimed at giving an opportunity to students who show promise in some area, but either cannot afford college, did not get in, or had to drop out for some reason. The college would hopefully have students from a wide range of ages and backgrounds. It would not be forced to take only students of college age, it could also accept those people who missed the chance to go to college when they were young, but still have a strong desire to learn and change their lives.
Even though the college would be responding to a social good, I believe that the admissions process would still be very rigorous and selective.
I fundamentally believe that anyone can succeed given the right environment. And this is precisely what this idea aims to show.