Even when school is out for the summer, there are still countless organizations hard at work developing unique opportunities to engage students with solar energy. Whether you’re a teacher, student, parent, or solar energy advocate interested in bringing solar energy education to your area schools, here are a few programs helping solar shine in classrooms nationwide.
Since 2008, the nonprofit We Care Solar has sent approximately 300 of its signature yellow “solar suitcases” to rural health clinics and medical facilities in 25 countries. Cofounders Dr. Laura Stachel and Hal Aronson developed the suitcase-sized solar-electric systems to power LED medical task lighting, charge cell phones and batteries, and provide electricity to 12 VDC devices. The turnkey PV system fits in a watertight, protective hard case.
As word of the solar suitcases spread, WCS began receiving more and more requests from orphanages and schools without electricity. To serve this growing need, WCS launched a new program called We Share Solar (WSS), which empowers U.S. students to build small, portable PV systems for schools and orphanages in developing countries. The project teaches students about solar electricity and energy efficiency, as well as selfless giving. Aronson, a solar energy designer and educator in California, adapted the design of the WCS medical solar suitcase to be used as a teaching tool in classrooms. Key modifications included using crimp-on connectors to eliminate wire stripping, as well as separating the wires so students can make the individual connections themselves and better understand the circuits.
Students, teachers, or schools in the United States raise the money to buy the suitcase assembly kit (about $1,200). Prior to the suitcase’s assembly, students learn how circuits and electricity work. As a class, the students work with their teacher to assemble the components into an operating 200-watt PV system. Once it has been assembled, the students select a destination for the suitcase—typically a school, orphanage, or organization operating in a developing country. Through the selection process, the students learn about energy poverty and sustainable development in other countries.
A WSS partner trains the recipients in the suitcase’s use. The recipients are often asked to contribute toward the shipping costs, or give back to WSS or its partner in some way. “When the recipients contribute to the suitcase, in whatever way they can, we’ve found they value it more and take better care of it,” Aronson says. As part of the project, the U.S. students are encouraged to write notes to the recipient students abroad and follow how the suitcase is used.
Since the program’s start last year, U.S. students have built 45 blue solar suitcases as class projects or special workshops in middle schools, high schools, or community colleges across the country—from Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, to Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa, California. The suitcases now provide light and electricity to thousands of children and students living in Haiti, Guatemala, Kenya, Costa Rica, and a host of other countries. The solar suitcase can charge up 10 to 20 high-efficiency e-readers in one day, and several organizations are working to distribute the readers to needy schools. In cooperation with Pennies for Posho, some suitcases have been installed at a girls’ dormitory at New Hope Orphanage in Bugiri, Uganda, providing a safer environment where the girls can study and play. Schools For Salone helped deploy the suitcases to two schools in Sierra Leone—including the Children in Crisis Primary School, which serves 470 students in Upper Allentown.
Developed and managed by the nonprofit Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) in Oregon, Solar 4R Schools (S4RS) provides hands-on kits and lesson plans for K-12 schools interested in teaching solar, wind, and other renewable energy technologies. Grade-appropriate activities range from teaching the basic principles of solar thermal and passive solar heating to teaching solar energy basics through sun-made art with sunlight-sensitive paper. Perhaps most importantly, the program acts as an integrator, partnering schools with grants, sponsors, and donors to cover the installation costs of grid-tied PV systems, typically 2 to 5 kilowatts in size. In other cases, the program assists schools in creating lesson plans to complement an existing PV system.