Carbonising the students of Bingara

To watch a video about the workshop, click here.

On Monday 25th June we staged our Carbon Science: Carbon Culture day of workshops with the students of Bingara Central School. 80 students between the ages of 11 and 15 arrived at The Living Classroom at 9.30am: a caffeine hit of the first order! We wanted them to gain some inkling of what carbon was: that it was fundamental to life and a shape-shifter. We also wanted to share our journey as artists working with scientists and farmers on big questions about land and society. We threw a whole lot of experiences at them to tell that story, and from the feedback we received from the students, that variety was key to the success of the day. Oh, and the fire pit.

yum, fire.

yum, fire.

The students all moved around in their age groups between different 'stations’. Ruy Anaya de la Rosa (lead scientist on the UN Biochar for Sustainable Soils Project) introduced them to the science of carbon, our carbon footprint, and the place of carbon in the lifecycle of a range of products. They then had an encounter with the freshly dug biochar pit, and the 44 gallon drum charcoal oven. Here they contributed to building and maintaining the upside-down fire (described by Georgie here) required to create charcoal. Some of the students then used the charcoal, to which manure had been added, to enrich the soil and do some snow pea plantings around The Living Classroom. Ruy and Adam Blakester, Rick Hutton and local engineer Peter Turnbull oversaw this bit, hearing more than a few interesting anecdotes from the kids about their other fire experiences.

The charcoal theme continued with a series of drawing exercises, using homemade willow charcoal (yes, fresh from the charcoal oven!) with Georgina Pollard, ably assisted by Emma Wisser. These exercises were based on children's party games like ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ and ‘musical chairs’. In Georgie’s own words ‘The games were an experiment in collaboration and conceptual drawing and produced beautiful, high energy, abstract images. Collaboration and curiosity came naturally to the students of Bingara, they took to abstract drawing like ducks to water.’

Outside, each group visited Alex Wisser’s in-progress ‘A Hole for the Living Classroom’, where he talked about the different layers of earth he was digging up, and the different human and geological histories one discovers when digging a hole.

The students did some digging themselves as part of the ‘tech-art’ and soil sample activity led by Jono Bolitho and Laura Fisher, and farmers Glenn Morris and Garry McDouall. They collected different soils from around The Living Classroom (including clay dug up by Alex, wetland mud, undernourished and compacted soil etc.). “Back in the lab” they experimenting with bio-sensors that provided a reading of their soil moisture, and triggered sound and light through an Arduino set-up.


We also compared how different soil clods held together when submerged in water, a classic demonstration of soil structure borrowed from Ray “The Soil Guy” Archuleta (see this great video). This worked a treat to show how the humus we’d collected from Glenn’s farm was leagues ahead of the other soils in structural integrity. Having Glenn and Garry there to talk as farmers about soil’s dependence on carbon to support the water cycle was amazing.


As an alternative to the art-tech, the younger students took part in a high-energy photosynthesis game. Emma Wisser produced fabulous costumes for the sun-god, water-wizard, carbon-genies, root-bosses and their mycorrhizal fungi-buddies. These folks took care of an Easter-egg style distribution of various objects representing carbon dioxide, vapour, sun energy and soil nutrients, which the students then raced to gather in two teams. They then constructed on-ground images of plants out of fabric and the found objects that displayed how these elements work together to make plants grow. Last-minute improvisation by Jono and Laura to determine what the actual aim of the game was led to a competition over the most beautifully crafted plant. A tough tough call. 11 and 12 year olds take competition extremely seriously.

Here are some quotes collected by the teachers the following day:

“I found the presentations very educational and interesting. I was shocked by the many things about carbon. I got to be there for a hands-on lesson with fire.” – Tammy.

“Alex’s hole interested me. Clay has multiple colours. I was interested by the clay colours.” – Isaak.

“The activity that interested me most was the artist one. We all tried the charcoal that we had made. We created a drawing together as a class.” – Emily-Kate.

“I learnt that when water absorbs into dirt it stays in the dirt like a sponge dipped into water, but this only occurs in some soil.” – Savannah.

We’ll take that! As artists we all really identified with the students' natural urge to experiment and seek stimulation. They were a more intimidating audience than an adult group at times, but they were so generous in their honesty and inquisitiveness and filled the place with an anarchic energy that rubbed off on all of us! It was sobering hearing the students from farming families discuss the drought. When the bio-sensor – in contact with a sample of irrigated soil - triggered the sound of a rain-storm one student remarked ‘I wish it would sound like that all the time’. This said it all.

Thanks to the students and teachers, especially Kylie the Art teacher, Scott the Science teacher and Brooke the Principal for jumping into this with us, and to Glenn Morris, Ruy Anaya de la Rosa, Adam Blakester, Rick Hutton, Garry McDouall, Peter Turnbull who generously committed their time to the workshop and all the preparation it required. Finally, thanks to Justin Hewitson for making this terrific little video about the day!