“Our bull’s-eye is middle school. During those years, the science curriculum is focused on energy transformation and circuits. Solar energy is a natural fit,” says Craig Collins, S4RS program manager. “Having a PV system on campus, close and visible, demystifies the technology. Students can monitor the power production with data displays in the classroom and engage with the technology. Just like recycling containers are in most schools, we hope PV arrays will one day be on every school.” The key to the program’s success, Collins says, is a strong teacher champion who applies to the program and engages key stakeholders, from administrators and parents to custodians. To receive a solar-electric system, schools agree to own and maintain the system after installation. In turn, the school receives an exciting learning tool and all of the clean, renewable electricity produced.
Since its 2005 launch, the program has worked with more than 200 schools nationwide. In April, 2013, the program worked with Continental Tire and MLS WORKS to fund a 2.8 kW solar demonstration project, RE education materials, and live data monitoring to Hosford Middle School in Portland, Oregon. The system is prominently displayed in the schoolyard, providing a real-world example of solar energy technology for students and visitors. In Vermont, Champlain Valley Union High School received a 1 kW PV system and an RE education package funded by snow sport manufacturer Rossignol and Protect our Winters, a nonprofit dedicated to reversing global warming. In Seattle, Washington, the cafeteria roof at Dimmitt Middle School is home to a 2.6 kW solar installation, primarily funded through a grant from Seattle City Light.
Solar Energy International (SEI) has been providing online and on-site solar training and renewable energy education from Colorado for more than 20 years. In 2002, SEI launched its Solar In the Schools (SIS) program to help educators teach about energy—both how it is used and where it is sourced. Educators come from across the country to participate in K-12 professional development courses—including Teaching Solar Energy to Kids workshops that provide an overview of lesson plans and hands-on elements that can be employed in the classroom. Activities include understanding how much energy can be generated with pedal power, using simple solar ovens, wiring solar cells, measuring solar electrical output, and powering DC toys and water pumps with photovoltaic cells.
“These teachers return to their schools as energy champions, armed with hands-on techniques and materials that can effectively convey renewable energy concepts to students of all ages,” says Noah Davis, SEI’s SIS program manager. “Children inherit what we give them. Our goal is to give them the knowledge, skills, and inspiration they need to overcome current and future energy challenges.”
With its SIS van packed with hands-on teaching equipment and displays, the program also delivers presentations to primary and secondary schools operating in the Colorado region. These presentations reach more than 2,000 students annually, one classroom at a time. SIS also offers RE Science Kits to regional teachers through its lending library.
This year, the program launched the “Solar Rollers” race series—a solar-powered radio-controlled car race geared toward high school students interested in electronics, mechanical systems, and renewable energy. Students from several Roaring Fork Valley schools in Colorado used math and science skills to research, design, and build custom RC cars powered solely by the sun. While simpler solar car races are nothing new in solar education, SIS aims to create a national “Solar Rollers” car race—the first race of its kind. The high school competition aims to fill the gap between the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Junior Solar Sprint event (in which middle school students race simple solar dragsters along guide strings) and the American Solar Challenge (in which teams of university engineering students race complex solar vehicles in hopes qualifying for the World Solar Challenge race across Australia).
This year’s prototype “solar rollers” are energy-efficient and lightweight, featuring custom components fabricated from carbon fiber, with roughly 40-watt hand-built arrays soldered together by students. Per the guidelines, cars started with “empty” batteries 30 minutes before the race, when they were placed at the starting line to begin charging in the sun. Cars reached speeds greater than 20 miles per hour, following a winding tennis-court-sized racecourse.
In May, the teams traveled to the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado, to demonstrate and race their cars against each other on a small track, in the first-ever, official Solar Roller demo. In the future, the race will bring teams from across the country to compete. Students work together building cars with guidance from a parent, teacher, or coach to compete in race and design categories. Each Solar Roller will cost the team about $1,000 in parts and tools—a challenging but achievable fundraising level for a high school, Davis says.