MELROSE — On an afternoon last week, two young scientists wearing black suits with striped black and silver ties stepped up to the wooden podium inside the Colorado Convention Center in Denver.
The title of their presentation didn't catch much interest — “Green-Roof Integrated Photovoltaic Canopies” — but when the pair of researchers launched into their talk, thin stacks of notecards in hand, the experts in the room leaned forward and their faces lit up, said environmental engineer Nathaniel Wight.
“I kid you not when I say they stole the show,” said Wight.
“And it wasn’t just because the engineers and scientists [who spoke before them] were pretty boring.”
The presenters, Noel Cruz, 14, and Elton Hollingsworth, 15, are both freshman at Bronx Design and Construction Academy on East 151st Street. Wight is their science teacher.
The two students were the only high schoolers invited by the American Solar Energy Society to speak at this year’s World Renewable Energy Forum, a gathering of leading experts in solar energy.
For the past year and a half, Wight, along with two other graduate students from Columbia University, Christina Ho and Marc Perez, have been trying to answer a seemingly simple question — can solar panels and green roofs work together?
“People generally talk about them in a way that’s mutually exclusive,” said Wight, 35, who is earning a master’s degree in environmental engineering from Columbia while teaching in The Bronx. “The question we were trying to answer is, is there a mutual benefit?”
While pertinent to anyone trying to decide whether to install a green roof, solar panels, or both, the question had never been addressed scientifically, the researchers said — which is one reason their project attracted the attention of the solar energy group.
The other reason is that, early in the project, the Columbia crew decided they wanted to include Wight’s students on its research team.
Wight enlisted students from Alfred E. Smith High School, where he taught for eight years, and then from Bronx Design and Construction Academy, a new school that opened in the same building this year, to help conduct the study.
Both schools include technical programs where students learn trades such as carpentry, electrical engineering and auto repair.
To set up the study, architectural drawing students drafted 3D models, carpentry students built wood boxes to hold the model roofs, electrical students installed wiring and plumbing students handled drainage.
The models — four two-foot high and four-foot long boxes that simulate different types of roofs, some covered with greenery and some with solar panels — were situated next to the school’s actual 1,500-square-foot green roof, the first of its kind on a New York City public school which Wight help orchestrate in 2010.
As the green roof-solar panel project continued, Wight’s science club students maintained the models and logged the data. They soon found that, indeed, the solar panels operated 3 percent more efficiently in the cooler temperatures caused by green roofs, which absorb heat and convert it into energy. That 3 percent bump, while minute, is significant because it begins to confirm the group's hypothesis that solar panels and green roofs work hand-in-hand.
Elton and Noel were particularly involved in the project.
Elton, who studies pre-engineering in school, is also fascinated by history. He said that he sees connections between ancient tools and modern technology.
“If you look at a loom,” he said, “that’s a little bit of engineering.”
Noel would like to become an aerospace engineer. He taught himself to use SketchUp — Google’s professional-grade design software — which he uses to model his visions of improved space shuttles.
“I have ideas that may work,” Noel said. “Things that NASA should do, but they don’t.”
Before the conference, Noel noted that, as a member of his school’s model UN, he had experience addressing large crowds. In fact, he represents Greece, whose economic mess may actually be more complicated than rocket science.
After the students presented their green roof-solar panel findings in Denver, Wight said they were “floating with excitement.”
“They worked hard, so they were waiting for it,” Wight said.
“But I don’t think anyone knew how successful they were going to be.”