Solar Panels Enhance STEM Learning

Columbia Water and Light presented a solar energy demonstration to students at Benton STEM Elementary School in Columbia, Missouri. Photo Courtesy of Heather McCullar

Columbia Water and Light presented a solar energy demonstration to students at Benton STEM Elementary School in Columbia, Missouri. Photo Courtesy of Heather McCullar

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers and students are acquiring solar panels for their schools to save on energy bills and to educate students about solar power. “The price of solar has plummeted, so it’s more affordable,” says Margo Murphy, science instructor at Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport, Maine. Murphy serves as advisor for Windplanners, a student club that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for a campus wind turbine; “we’re now focused on paying off rooftop solar panels,” she reports. “We have been very active and focused on moving our campus toward becoming…carbon neutral.”

The school acquired its 160-kilowatt system of panels through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with local company ReVision Energy. Under the PPA, for the first six years, “Camden Hills will continue to pay a contracted price to ReVision Energy that is based on the current price paid, but won’t change. [It] will allow ReVision to take depreciation over six years; [it’s a] way for them to maximize their return while also bringing our cost down…We buy their energy for six years, then buy out the whole system in year seven,” Murphy explains. “We [also] determined that if we take out a…loan in year seven from a bank and [repay] it over seven years, we will pay less on the loan than we would on the amount we would have paid ReVision for the power.

The PPA “is a financial tool any school in the United States can use. [It] has helped Maine [obtain solar panels] despite a sluggish economy,” she contends.

Windplanners sat in on meetings between ReVision and the school. “Windplanners are learning about the whole development world, writing grants and fundraising.” They have written or are writing grants to foundations supporting the environment and education, and to businesses like Lowe’s and Home Depot.

Murphy also teaches Honors Global Science, an integrated core science class in which freshmen study renewable energy, and Gardening and Horticulture, an elective course focusing on sustainability. Other classes also incorporate the solar panels; students in a Foundations of Physics course construct solar boats. “We have installed a monitoring system that allows students to access data on energy consumption and production as a whole school. We are able to see our school as an energy system,” she relates.

Honors Global Science students do sustainability investigations on topics like “how many solar panels are needed on my home to maintain my family’s energy usage? How much solar energy can be produced per year by the school’s panels? The students design projects based on their own questions,” Murphy explains. “Students can connect to power companies for data about their homes to find the answers.”

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) “have been very helpful in looking at the sustainability piece, in climate and sustainability. Our district uses NGSS to guide what we do and how we do it. It gives us the latitude to consider complex, authentic problems with real-world implications,” she contends.

Murphy helps students understand “not just the science and how the technology works, but also what drives change.” When students ask why some states have more solar power, “we do data exploration [to see] how trends have changed worldwide, nationally, statewide, and locally,” she explains. “We look at what’s happening economically and politically. Students become aware of how policy and laws influence what happens in the state.” They come “to understand how some very sunny states may not have well-developed solar, and less sunny states can have a vibrant solar industry.”

Finding Resources

Cheryl Esslinger, who teaches an alternative energy unit in her Earth and Environmental Systems course at Rhinelander High School in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, has benefitted from a program offered by energy provider Wisconsin Public Service (WPS). Because her school participates in WPS’ SolarWise® for Schools program, it received a 2-kilowatt rooftop solar energy system at no charge. “We can monitor how much power we use and how much the panels provide, gather data and make comparisons,” she reports. SolarWise provides a curriculum, “small solar panels and [solar] car building items,” and materials for building solar windmills and hot water heaters, she notes.

After participating in WPS teacher workshops, she acquired “three used solar panels with multimeter angles of insolation [the amount of radiation Earth receives from the Sun]… Students use what they learn about insolation and the angle of the Sun to figure the best position for the solar panel,” she relates.

SolarWise schools can compete in the annual Solar Olympics renewable energy competition. Events include racing solar cars and building solar cookers. “My students like to see what other students are doing,” says Esslinger, who is taking a team to this year’s competition.

“My students [develop] a better understanding of how solar panels work and the optimal conditions [for using them],” she contends. “You have to be in an area with lots of direct sunlight for this to be viable for powering your home.”

Making Solar Elementary

“We were approached by the UPS [United Parcel Service] Foundation [when] our principal mentioned getting solar panels,” says Heather McCullar, STEM Specialist at Benton STEM Elementary School in Columbia, Missouri. The foundation provided $5,000 “because they wanted to support STEM education,” she recalls.

The school purchased the panels from local company Dogwood Solar not only because of their price, but also because “they [appreciated] the educational component” of the purchase, McCullar asserts. Installer Dan Shifley has presented on electricity and solar energy in Benton’s annual STEM Showcase, where he demonstrates “models of a panel and how it works,” she relates.

Benton’s panels are located on a flat section of its roof, and are easily observed by students, she explains. “We use [the panels] as part of our Earth science units, mostly in first grade.”

In a first-grade unit on observations, “we talk about daylight at various times of the year, and we’ve expanded that to include solar energy,” she explains. Using data from Dogwood Solar’s website, “we look at patterns of weather and sunlight…It’s a good way to start discussions with students because they can look at and interact with the data,” she contends. “It helps students develop a concrete context for science content, vocabulary, and language.”

Schools should “find foundations or businesses that support STEM projects and hands-on [investigation]” and compare prices, she advises. “Consider how you want to use the panels with students; have a specific plan for what impact it will have on student learning… There’s a lot of money out there for STEM projects. Lots of companies want to support these initiatives.”

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

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3 Comments

  1. NFlournoy
    Posted July 6, 2016 at 2:27 am | Permalink

    The post was very interesting. Schools should definitely consider solar power; the utility bill is a large expenditure for any school district’s fiscal budget.
    A solar power curriculum will give students hands on experience with reducing our carbon footprint.

  2. Chris Gleason
    Posted July 13, 2016 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Greenhills School in Ann Arbor MI would like to share data and implementation details on its renewable energy dashboard which monitors, displays and archives performance data from the school’s rooftop 10W wind turbine, 5W solar array, green roof and weather station. The low power wind turbine and solar array are used for educational purposes only. They are not tied into the school’s electrical grid. As such, the entire dashboard capability could be replicated inexpensively at other schools as a resource solely dedicated to student education. Contact information and details on the renewable energy dashboard and its use for student education are available at https://youtu.be/Ha4tmUKlMqQ.

  3. Laura Nicholson
    Posted July 20, 2016 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    As a Program Manager of Energy Education for Bonneville Environmental Foundation’s Solar 4R Schools, solar education is what I do. There are some great resources for activities/lesson plans/curriculum around renewable energy and solar in particular.

    First: solar4Rschools.org online Educator Library. Teacher activities generally developed over a year-long partnership with us, vetted for technical accuracy.

    There are also some great resources at University of Washington’s Clean Energy Institute: http://www.cei.washington.edu/education/lessons/. I haven’t fully checked out the resources at this next one, but see UC San Diego’s resources at http://solar.ucsd.edu/education/lessons.html. For classroom supplies, we love Solar Schoolhouse at the Rahus Institute http://solarschoolhouse.org/ and SunWind Solar!

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