July 14, 2009

Rahus Institute releases Teaching Solar: A Teacher’s Guide to Integrating Solar into Classroom Curriculum

“I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework.” Edith Ann, [Lily Tomlin]. I agree, Edith Ann. I had one of those teachers: Ms. Williams, 4th grade English teacher. Her love of the written word and the English language was, well, intoxicating, inspiring, even for a 4th grader….

“I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework.” Edith Ann, [Lily Tomlin].

I agree, Edith Ann.

I had one of those teachers: Ms. Williams, 4th grade English teacher. Her love of the written word and the English language was, well, intoxicating, inspiring, even for a 4th grader. Her influence was potent; I became an English major.

I hadn’t thought of Ms. Williams until recently when I reviewed The Rahus Institute’s recently released, Teaching Solar: A Teacher’s Guide to Integrating Solar Energy into Classroom Curriculum, which features the work of several pioneering renewable energy educators-most of whom have used or adapted Solar Schoolhouse materials-and provides real examples of the different ways that clean energy concepts can be presented to students.

I’m thinking it’s a book about many Ms. Williams’, and I want to go back to school.

“We’ve been working with teachers for the past ten years developing hands-on, project-based lessons about solar and renewable energy,” said Tor Allen, Director of The Rahus Institute & Solar Schoolhouse. “We’ve met some incredible teachers who have adopted some terrific strategies for incorporating solar energy in their classrooms. I think it has higher value when they [teachers] see that other educators have been successful.”

The book has 14 chapters, and opens with activities exploring the sun’s movement through the sky. Projects for modeling passive solar homes are presented, from single buildings through model solar villages. Solar electric theory and practice are interwoven with solar architecture. Lessons in solar cooking, solar cars, and water pumping are featured, along with suggestions for building solar fountains. There’s a chapter on clean energy concepts in outdoor education, ideas for field trips, and a chapter on older students teaching solar to younger students. The book concludes with chapters on Solar Discovery Faires, Solar Schoolhouse Olympics, and solar science projects. Extensive appendices are included to help teachers incorporate these lessons in their classrooms. Each chapter has a materials list and related national educational standards to which the lessons apply.

It’s a great guide, easy to read and follow, full of inspiration for any educator.

It’s no surprise that the push to create and adopt solar energy curriculum has come from the teachers rather than from administrations.

“Rarely has a K-12 administration been the driver for solar energy education,” said Allen, “though there are signs this is changing. In fact, just this spring, the California Department of Education awarded $250K grants to 42 high schools to develop ‘green academies’ designed to be small learning environments within existing schools. These green academies will integrate solar energy concepts into math, science, history, English, and multi-media classes, and will link those classes via one or more projects.”

Educators from several of these new green academies will be attending the July 12-17, 2009 Solar Schoolhouse Summer Institute for Educators where the newly-released Teaching Solar will be used.

While solar education curriculum, especially at the lower, K-5 levels, looks like simple, uncomplicated stuff-solar cookers, solar car races, pizza box sundials–it’s designed to show real world connections of how the sun works to provide energy. But Allen said that solar curriculum is becoming more sophisticated at all grade levels. Energy elective classes are now being offered at some middle and high schools.

“Building model solar homes is becoming a popular project, from 5th to 12th grade,” said Allen. “The ‘Your Solar Home’ curriculum highlighted in Teaching Solar provides a variety of lessons that relate to how solar can heat, cool, and power our homes.”

The 4th and 5th graders in Steven Rutherford’s elementary class in Berkeley used those lessons as they created their model solar home.

The students worked in teams to learn basic principles of architecture, passive solar design and solar electrical engineering though hands-on investigation. They discovered from their own experiences that the amount of solar energy decreases in winter and that this decrease is related to the changing angle of the sun.

“This is a really fundamental kind of understanding that we try and build with students,” said Rutherford.1

At the high school level, some educators are teaching construction courses where solar energy is a key element of the homes they design and build.

Randy Smith, building construction and architectural drafting instructor with the Imperial Valley Regional Occupational Program (ROP) at Brawley Union High School, is one of those educators. Students of the ROP construction program build a full size house and install it with solar electric and solar hot water systems. 2

“When I saw how interested kids were into it (solar), it lit a fire under me to educate them about conservation and green energy,” Smith said. “Since few construction workers are familiar with solar electric systems, these students will have invaluable knowledge once they enter the workforce.”

It takes about a year to build the house. Once complete, the house is offered for sale to the general public, and the proceeds from the sale are used for the next house construction project. With the support of the school board and the district, and with grants from the local utility (Imperial Irrigation District), Smith coordinated with the Solar Schoolhouse and Solar Energy International (SEI) to provide hands-on training in grid-tied photovoltaic systems for his students. The SunWorks, a local solar installer, also helped with the project. 3

Interestingly, some of the lessons and activities developed by K-12 educators are being adopted at the community college level.

“The Solar Cell Classroom Set and Solar Power Monitor Set used at schools like Los Angeles Trade Technical, Ohlone College (Fremont), and San Jose City,” said Allen, “allows students the opportunity to experiment with smaller (and safer) solar cells in series/parallel configurations before they get to bigger modules. It’s something they do early on – experience that magical solar moment – and it ignites their interest for the rest of the course.”

According to Allen, all of the teacher’s projects featured in Teaching Solar are best practices.

“The book and accompanying DVD is not a course book for any one age group,” said Allen, “but readers can pick and choose what works best for their situation. There are ideas for science fair projects, instructions for a Solar Discovery Faire and Solar Olympics competitions. There are easy to use cutouts for measuring sun angles (i.e., elevation, azimuth), and conducting site surveys using low-cost materials.”

Because interest in solar energy from educators to students has never been this high, I’m guessing Allen and his group has been busier than usual.

“This year,” said Allen, “there are more adult education, workforce development, and high school vocational teachers attending than in years past. There is a growing demand for additional 1-2 day Solar Primer workshops that we conduct throughout the year, allowing us to reach more teachers closer to where they live.”

The institute average 20-25 participants each summer, just the right size for lots of hands-on experience. The Teaching Solar guide and DVD are very fresh, completed in June, just in time for the summer educator institutes.”

I’m always curious to know what happens to kids who get introduced to solar at an early age. Do they have their own Ms. Williams to inspire them to become part of today’s solar community?

“You know,” said Allen, “experiencing solar electricity is a magical moment – watching the sun power a water pump, a radio, a fan, or a car is a real eye opener.”

Allen tells the story about a few students at Brawley High School who were perilously close to dropping out when they entered the Solar Schoolhouse Olympics. With help from their instructor, they built the prize-winning model solar home. From there, one of those students enrolled in Brawley’s construction class where they installed solar on the house under construction. By this time, this student, along with his instructor and two other classmates, went to Solar Energy International (SEI) in Carbondale, Colorado for an additional two-week training session. He’s back home now, working as a solar installer.”

I’m at ease knowing Ms. Williams lives.

For more information about the new Teaching Solar guide, or the 2009 Solar Schoolhouse Summer Institute for Educators, contact Tor Allen at 925-370-7262

1 Teaching Solar: A Teacher’s Guide to Integrating Solar Energy into Classroom Curriculum, 2009, edited and illustrated by Clay Atchison, written by Tor Allen, Hal Aronson & Clay Atchison, with contributions from Dena Allen, Jannike Allen, Pauline Allen, Josh Church, Christine Condon & Kathy Swartz, ch. 2, Architecture & Solar Electricity, pp. 17-19.

2 Ibid, ch. 5, Solar Construction, pp. 33

3 Ibid, ch. 5, Solar Construction, pp. 34