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Tierra Pacifica Unveils Classroom of the Future

Kids sit on bouncing balls and answer questions with clickers, like on 'Jeopardy,' but the real future is in a classroom designed to be green, uplifting and fun.

School for fifth-graders at Tierra Pacifica Charter School is a bit like playing a video game.

A teacher asks them what continent they are seeing on their new, interactive whiteboard screen, and they click in with the answers, like contestants on a game show.

But that's so two years ago, explains Principal Linda Lambdin. The real new technology is in the classroom itself, the first green classroom in Santa Cruz.

The room, designed to be energy efficient and child friendly, was a collaboration between the principal and VUMA High Performance Buildings, a San Jose company that hopes to sell similar buildings across the country.

This one was built from the ground up to be efficient, environmentally friendly and pleasing to children. It's also portable.

It has double-paned, extra-large windows that cut down on the need for lighting.

The walls around its 960 square feet are thickly insulated; the ceiling has lighting that points upward and downward to take away that institutional feel; the air is purified; the roof has skylights;  the energy savings are 20-100 percent, compared with standard classrooms.

There are special touches, such as the sloping roof that funnels rainwater into big storage basins to be used for watering the gardens. Sensors dim the lights or raise them with the level of sunshine, gently and in proportion to what is really needed.

Carpets, made from recycled plastic bottles, are in small squares, so if one gets damaged, it can be lifted out and replaced, without having to get a whole new rug. They are comfortable and many of the children sit on them during the day.

The high ceiling has an airflow that conducts sound without making it tinny and keeps the bulding cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The wood is all from harvested forests.

Forget being trapped in chairs; students sit on bouncing balls.

"We see how much energy these kids have," says Lambdin. "They are always moving and they get restless in a chair. On the balls, they are using the energy and still at their desks."

There are chairs piled in a corner, if the students want them.

Vuma in Swahili means embodied energy, says the company's cofounder, Ralph Le Roux.

"A lot of companies talk about being green, but not all do it from the ground up," he says. "It means spending more time on the design. It costs more."

But it pays back over the long term in energy savings and not having to be torn down.

The classroom will function for 50 years, its maker says, considerably more than any other portable building. Tierra Pacifica has two of the classrooms, one movable, the other on a foundation and permanent.

The buildings, with names such as Dragonfly, Monarch and Ladybug, sell for around $100,000 as one-time constructions, says Le Roux, but the price would come down as more are made.

Both new rooms at the school are bright with natural light, something that went against the grain of old school buildings, where it was thought that if kids could see outside, that's where they'd want to be.

"We noticed they were more attentive," says Lambdin of the new room, which made its debut for students a few weeks ago and celebrated a grand opening for parents Monday.

"Their voices went down. They love it. They say it every day. They feel like they are going to school outside. It's not like some old classrooms, which would feel like sitting in a cave all day."

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