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  • The Forest for the Trees
Nov 2011
Nov. 23, 2011 — It was a crisp autumn afternoon in New York’s Washington Square Park and I found there a familiar bustle of activity. A photographer’s assistant checking light levels on a model perched on the edge of the fountain. A collection of honey roasted nut fans crowding around a concession cart. A gentleman with a long, white beard tossing off blues licks on an acoustic guitar. My attention was pulled in all different directions as I walked through this wonderful public space — all except, as it happened, up.

I had a few minutes yet before my dentist appointment (just another day in my thrill-a-minute life), so I sat down to check the news on my phone. The first story I came across: that of a 13-year-old Long Island student who did look up, and who saw in the patterns of the branches of the trees above him a novel means of arranging solar panels.

The student, Aidan Dwyer, hit upon this idea, naturally (no pun intended), while tramping through the forest. “One day I was just walking through the woods – well, on a winter hiking trip — and I noticed that the tree branches collect sunlight by going up in the air,” he told CNN’s John D. Sutter. “And I thought: ‘Maybe if we put solar panels on the ends of the branches it would collect a lot of sunlight.’ ”

Building upon this insight, Dwyer built a prototype of a tree-like solar panel array for a science fair, and ultimately was awarded this year’s Young Naturalist prize from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He also presented his ideas — based on the Fibonacci Sequence, which he says is evident in the patterns of the branches (I’ll take his word for it), his means of arranging solar panels is 20 to 50% more efficient than conventional solar arrays — at the recent PopTech conference in Camden, Maine.

Dwyer said several professors have contacted him about developing the idea further, while some bloggers have called him out on the types of measurements he used (for his part, he said the latter mostly missed the point of his project). Whatever the case, what’s important here is not necessarily that Dwyer is right — anyway, science is all about this kind of back and forth — but rather that he pursued the project at all.

Many of those who think about such things feel our education system is not doing enough to prepare students to meet the myriad challenges they will face when they are older. With such a strong focus on standards and accountability, for example, our schools are, in many cases, neglecting to nurture the sort of creative thinking that will be essential in maintaining our edge in science and technology.

We live in an age of innovation and if we are to compete globally we need to teach younger generations to think consistently outside the box. Only then will they be equipped to handle the complex issues of the 21st century. Encouraging students like Dwyer — who look in the sky and see not just the branches of a tree but, possibly, a new way to address an old problem — is a good start.

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