More than a metaphor: Solar energy in the classroom

Understanding Electricity Through Photovoltaics from green levine on Vimeo.

by Jessica Levine
Eckstein Middle School
Seattle, Washington

As a student of David Orr at Oberlin College I helped design the Adam Joseph Lewis Center (AJLC) for Environmental Studies. The building was designed to generate more energy than it consumed– a phenomenal concept for a building. It turned out it was also a pioneering concept for education.

Taking my Oberlin education into my own educational practice has been easy. I teach the science of sustainability in a year-long physical science curriculum for 6th graders at Eckstein Middle School in Seattle.  So, recently, I considered some of the same questions we had set out to explore for the AJLC. Was it possible to generate energy from solar—even in Seattle? Could I maintain a system as a demonstration, for students, families, and community, of what is possible with renewable energy? Could I go off the grid in a large urban public  middle school?

Solar energy has the power to help people become aware of their use of energy. The sun simply shines on. Everything is illuminated. In my classroom, that’s not just a metaphor. My classroom has a bank of south facing windows. On the window sill, a plastic solar plant flaps its two leaves much to the delight and mystery of my students. Early in the school year, they notice the plant and wonder how it works. I suggest that they pay attention, and that the answers will be revealed through the course of our study. By the end of the year they can describe the energy transformation taking place to produce the motion. “It’s solar powered,” they conclude. “Sure, all plants are solar powered,” I reply in my typical educational humor helping students see the truth in not just the small photovoltaic system, but also in the larger picture.

The south facing windows give us vision.  In the afternoon, returning from lunch, we rarely need to turn on the lights. If I could teach without the lights, I began to wonder; where else could we reduce our energy load? If we think of the school as a city, and the classroom like an individual home, is it possible to simulate an off-grid experience?

The Solar Roller Is Born

With funding from an Amgen Award for Science Teaching Excellence, and in partnership with Bonneville Environmental Foundation, the Solar Roller was created. The Solar Roller brings solar electricity into the classroom. The system is designed with a solar panel that can be deployed on the ground at any angle so the kids can see it, monitor the energy it creates and experiment with shading effects.  The remaining equipment can be situated in the classroom where 1500 watts of AC power can be supplied to a wide range of devices.  I use the system to run the classroom computer and document camera and I can monitor data points from the solar electric system on the computer. While I can’t control the electrical needs for the heating and lighting system in my classroom space I can take control of the devices in the room and run them on clean energy.  In this sense I am taking my classroom off –the-grid by reducing the need for utility energy for devices the class can manage.

Opportunity to Teach Tradeoffs and Systems

When electricity is flowing, we can project information on the walls in the classroom and even touch the screen to manipulate the projected information. This new wave of education has helped me create a limited paper classroom. Still the trail of resource consumption does not end with the paper stock. The energy we use also has an environmental impact and carbon footprint. We must be aware of the trade-offs of our educational  technological advances With a move to more renewable energy technologies we have an amazing opportunity to teach students about the deeper tradeoffs and systems thinking skills needed to create a more sustainable future…

[Note: Photo above is from Stanwood High School]

Jessica Levine can be reached at Ms.green.levine@gmail.com

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