STEM Education

Solar Power Fuels Science at Ruben Salazar Bilingual Education Center

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Gerard Kovach had a simple goal: to teach his bilingual students the concepts of solar energy. The major obstacle: a lack of funds at his school for teaching materials.

Kovach teaches sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade science classes at Chicago-based Ruben Salazar Bilingual Education Center. The school has about 400 students, most from families in lower income brackets.

His idea, taken from a course he'd attended at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, was to let the kids team up to build model-sized solar-powered race cars. Along the way, they'd learn about climate change (some classes would watch the Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth), alternative sources of power, how light and solar photovoltaic cells work, and how to apply scientific methods. He'd used a similar curriculum in science classes at a former school. But this time, with a reduced science budget, he needed to figure out how to buy the kits, which cost $24.95 apiece, from SolarWorld Co.

"I wanted 30 of [the kits]," said Kovach, "because I wanted to do a project with all three classes."

So Kovach submitted a proposal to DonorsChoose.org, a site that matches classroom needs submitted by public school teachers with people willing to fund them. Within a couple of weeks, the proposal had accumulated the $860 that he needed to obtain the kits from the organization, which does the ordering and ships the materials to the recipient. "I thought I hit the jackpot," he said. "That was a lot of money our class was asking for."

Tapping Student Ingenuity
The kits include a solar cell, a motor, and a plastic car body that snaps together. The students worked in groups of three or four to build the cars and design experiments. "They may experiment with what the effects are of adding foil to the solar cars," said Kovach. "They may do experiments to come up with what would happen if we painted the cars different colors. How would that affect the absorption of light and the performance of the car? What happens if we raise the angle of incline of the PV panels?" The expected result: Students would gain a better understanding of basic scientific methods, particularly developing a hypothesis, then testing it.

In the future, Kovach said, he hopes the cars will be dismantled, allowing the students to invent their own solar-powered products. At his previous school, those inventions included creating solar-powered boats, solar ovens, and what he calls "the most ingenious invention": a solar-powered nail polish drier, a box painted black with horizontal slits the user would put her nails into. On the top of the box the PV panel was connected to a computer fan, which would spin inside the box to dry the polish.

In fact, Kovach said he believes the reusability aspect of the materials was one of the reasons his project was funded through DonorsChoose.

In some cases, Kovach expects the groups to team up. A previous invention--a huge pontoon boat--required more power than a single group had, so three teams banded together, providing access to three motors. "I thought that was creative. I let them find their own creativity with this," he said. "I just give them guidelines, and they feed off each other."

Although the work on the inventions starts in class, Kovach expects it to seep outside of the classroom too. "Students get so excited, they want to outdo their classmates," he said. "A lot of the kids will meet at their homes and work outside the class."

To communicate the basics of how solar works, Kovach assigned the text from "How Solar Cells Work" from the site howstuffworks.com. "The text is pretty challenging for them," said Kovach. So they work through the material doing "jigsaw reading." As he explained, "Each group is assigned a section of article. They become experts on that section. Then they present to the class what they've learned about that section. That's how they get a general idea about how that whole process works. Therefore, it allows me to give them opportunities to present in front of the class."

This year, along with continuing the experiments with the solar cars, Kovach will be adding a new component from another DonorsChoose proposal, funded in eight days: a hydrogen fuel cell car kit.

Also, the school has arranged for representatives from Chicago's The Field Museum to come in their biofuel van to do lessons with the kids. Plus, as part of a new city-wide science club, oil company BP is sending engineers to come into the classroom to work with the students.

Advice on How To Get a Science Project Funded
Kovach estimated that he's had about $10,000 worth of projects funded through DonorsChoose. Introduced to the site three years ago, Kovach wanted to obtain some digital microscopes. He spent an hour or two to write the proposal, and it was funded within a week. On the other hand, an effort to obtain laptops for the classroom was going "nowhere," so he asked to have the proposal pulled from the site.

"I've learned that proposals that get funded quicker are the ones where it's very hands-on," he said. "Also, in most cases, it's materials that can be used over again--not just a piece of technology that'll be used every once in a while."

Along with the supplies from DonorsChoose, Kovach receives a disposable camera, which he uses to take pictures of the class to share with donors, who stay anonymous. He and the students are also expected to write a thank-you note as part of the agreement. As he's learned, "Getting good feedback--very descriptive letters from the kids and a good set of pictures--will help me increase my chances of that donor wanting to fund a proposal in the future."

Kovach's advice to other teachers who might consider using this approach for funding school projects: "Research and learn from other people's proposals already submitted online. Try to make it an experience that the donor would [read] and say, 'I wish I could be a part of that learning experience in that classroom.' Usually that means it's going to be [something] where kids are going to challenged but still have a lot of fun in the process."

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About the author: Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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