A little more than a decade ago an interesting thing happened in a suburban high school chemistry class.
The class was Organic Chemistry, and the teacher was Darrin Peters. While studying hydrocarbons he mentioned that diesel fuel could be made from waste vegetable oil collected from fast food restaurants. He had seen a story about it the previous day on the news.
That night Rachel, one of his students, researched the topic and came back the next day with a stack of papers two inches thick on biodiesel. As she entered the classroom, she handed her teacher the research and said, “Mr. Peters, can we do this as a lab?”
This was the start of the Rockwood Summit High School Renewable Fuel Project in Fenton, Missouri.
The class started the project as a lab. Mr. Peters found that the chemistry involved with the production and purification of biodiesel completely mirrored the curriculum for Organic Chemistry. The students successfully made several test batches. Their fuel was tested by a lab and their results proved outstanding.
They were able to fuel a 1980s Volkswagen Diesel Rabbit that a friend had loaned the school. The kids took turns riding in the car around the school parking lot while Mr. Peters drove. The exhaust smelled like french fries and the car ran well.
The students began to ask if it would be possible to have their own diesel vehicle and biodiesel processor. They wanted the younger students to have the same learning experience they did. Mr. Peters and other science teachers began to write grants and organize fundraisers.
Since that time, the students and staff of the RSHS Renewable Fuel project have developed a renewable fuel STEM curriculum, received a grant to build a renewable fuel education center on school property (Monsanto Education Center for Sustainable Solutions), designed and built a computer monitored and controlled biodiesel processor, obtained five diesel vehicles, three of which were improved and sold to raise money and produced high-quality biodiesel fuel that is registered with the IRS and EPA.
The Organic Chemistry students have taught thousands of people about the potential of renewable fuel.
Currently, they sell biodiesel blends to catering trucks at Washington University, the maintenance department of the Rockwood School District and one diesel school bus. All of this was made possible through grants, donations and fundraising.
But their largest asset was and continues to be, the enduring spirit of the students and the overwhelming generosity of their community. Mr. Peters has retired from public education and was replaced by one of his former students who was an Organic Chemistry “rock star.”
Daniel Money (the teacher who replaced Darrin Peters) looks forward to taking over the project and giving it his personal touch. The RSHS Renewable fuel project will endure and is a model of what project-based learning and renewable fuel can accomplish with the support of its community.