November 26, 2021

Hot stuff: students make charcoal

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Moira McAninch of Tully, left, Chad DeVoe, environmental education teacher at Onondaga-Cayuga-Madison Board of Cooperative Educational Service, and Jarrod Bush of Cortland work to start a charcoal burn April 23 at Lime Hollow Nature Center.

Isabelle Smith said when you buy a bag of charcoal, you don’t think: “Where does this come from?”

Now she — and all the seniors at the Onondaga-Cayuga-Madison Board of Cooperative Educational Services New Visions Environmental Program — know that answer. They made their own.

“I think it’s pretty cool,” said Smith, of Cortland. “We didn’t really know where we get charcoal from. It’s one of those things we use, get it at the store and use it.”

“You can take wood, suck water out of it and it leaves charcoal. I thought you went to Lowe’s and bought it in a bag,” said Kylie Davie of Cortland.

Charcoal is a reliable fuel for grilling, burns steadily, with low smoke output. And people can build a fire with it hot enough to melt steel. Blacksmiths use it, Chad DeVoe, environmental education teacher, said.

“It burns so much hotter,” he said.

It can purify water, be used for dye, some gunpowder, make ink and dehydrate something for preservation, according to “Wonder How To” Survival Training website.

Students will sell their school made charcoal in Lime Hollow’s visitor center. And they are making bio-char, a soil amendment, that they’ll sell there, as well.

Lime Hollow Nature Center, at 338 McLean Road, Cortlandville, is home to nature trails for hiking and nature school for preschoolers. It also serves as the home of the environmental class. Kids have made their own soap, their own maple syrup, have learned to operate chain saws, split and cut wood.

Now they have made their own fuel from wood found at Lime Hollow.

DeVoe corralled the welding class at OCM BOCES to create two metal drum ovens, complete with smoke stacks, doors and legs to stand on, to bake the wood to make charcoal. And he asked the graphic design class at OCM BOCES to design labels.

On April 23, they had filled the drum ovens with wood and sealed them tight. The ovens are located in a clearing at Lime Hollow Nature Center near their classroom. Under the drums were the makings of a bonfire. Two classes access the space. The morning class lit the wood and got “the burn” going. The afternoon class would tend it.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

From left, Jarrod Bush, Josh Hardesty, Michael Frederick, Kylie Davie and Isabelle Smith, after the charcoal burn was initiated at Lime Hollow Nature Center.

“We have lots of wood sealed up in these barrels,” said Moira McAninch of Tully. “It’s sealed in for low oxygen environment … If we keep oxygen out, we burn off everything that isn’t carbon. We will be left with huge chunks of charcoal.”

DeVoe said the ideal length of the wood is six to eight inches so water escapes the wood quickly.

“We filled these up a couple of days ago,” McAninch said.

The smoke stacks let out water vapor, oils, methane,” Smith said. “It leaves just the carbon of the wood.”

Emily Coughlin of DeRuyter said the wood will burn for about five hours before turning into charcoal chunks.

Several kids said the charcoal maker project was a capstone project for a student in the afternoon class.

“We choose a big project to do at the end of the year.,” said Josh Hardesty of Cortland. “It’s a substitute for a final.”

DeVoe said it started out with a kid’s idea and turned into a class project.

“The kid in the afternoon will do a mesh system to separate charcoal,” he said.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Jarrod Bush, left, and Josh Hardesty look at the packed wood chunks, ideally six to eight inches long, jammed into metal drum ovens for charcoal making.

Kevin Auyer, the OCM BOCES welding teacher, was a professional welder for more than 20 years before teaching welding at the Route 13 school. He said the drum ovens were a great project.

“I actually did this with the juniors. The seniors were in the middle of something else,” Auyer said. “Chad got a hold of me. Before I knew it, he was on it. He got the barrels and the video,” a tutorial on how charcoal is made in a 55-gallon drum oven.

“We spent a day or so watching the video, coming up with ideas,” he added. “Part of the fun for me is hearing kids throwing ideas around in the classroom.”

“We really like doing projects for the community. The kids respond very well. When they get to do something that someone is going to use and has a purpose, that makes the project much better,” Auyer said.

Students, who learn building and welding techniques, measurement, planning and teamwork, had a week to make the ovens. Teamwork is crucial, Auyer said. Some kids find it hard to trust their classmates. They’d rather do a project by themselves then to have to rely on others. They have to push through that.

“We just got done doing fire pits for some people. We just finished six fire pits,” he said.

And the building trades teacher, Jim Bender, is building food pantry closets for Cortland Mutual Aid. The group has closets set up in neighborhoods where people in need can access food, vegetables and personal care items. The organization, as well as community members, regularly drop off food in the closets.

“They were worrying about the base of the wood structure rotting,” Auyer said. “The kids made aluminum frames for the bottoms.”

Tanya Komar, a graphic design teacher at OCM BOCES, will get the specs for labels for charcoal and bio-char. Her students will research existing labels of similar products.

“They will brainstorm design ideas as a group and then design their own,” she said.

Kids will get feedback from classmates, edit their work and send final designs to the environmental class. DeVoe’s class will pick the logo from there.

“Logo design is something we have studied earlier in the year so this is a great project to let students show what they can do,” she said. “Having it be a bit competitive is a great motivator.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Steven Coffin of Tully, holding two finished pieces of charcoal, made from wood in a metal barrel.

Julie Allen, a math teacher at OCM BOCES, typically acts as a chaperone when the class goes on camping trips and hikes. She was at the lighting of the charcoal event. Any time she can incorporate math lessons into the mix, she does.

“This is awesome. I am in my own niche of loving the environment,” Allen said. “I love being around this class. They have such amazing ideas.”