I had the opportunity several times this year to speak to schools about renewable energy and specifically solar power. This is always enlightening and fun for me, and provides a way to give back to the community. And as with any new endeavor, I tend to learn more than I teach. Here are some things I picked up from these recent sessions:
Kids Are Learning This Earlier Than You Think
One of the sessions was for a sixth-grade science class. They already knew so much about the subject I ended up skipping half my speech. I started asking the group ‘Where does all energy come from?’ thinking they would have no idea that all forms of our energy really start with the sun. They knew all about it. They knew that you can harness electricity and heat from the sun. I was blown away by how much the kids knew. The teacher told me that is now part of most middle school science curriculum.
That doesn’t mean that we should assume they know a lot about the subject, but this topic is definitely on their radar. We are breeding a generation of kids that know about energy in a way I was never formally taught. And the best part: I did the speech in a small rural town who’s only industries are coal mining and coal-fired power plants. Most of their parents probably make a living in the coal business. But the kids knew about solar and it excited them.
Solar Power is Intuitive For Kids
For most kids, telling them that the sun gives off energy is like telling them their oven can cook a pie. It’s natural for them. Most kids never see power plants or coal mines or transmission lines. What they do see, nearly every day, is the sun. And accidentally looked right at it and they’ve had sunburns and they can feel just how powerful it is. So telling them we can use it to produce energy is easy.
Of course, explaining how sunlight actually turns into electricity is tricky. I like the birthday party analogy that goes something like this: There is a birthday party in a room at your friend’s house. Everyone is behaving and having a nice time, just sort of milling around and talking quietly in one room. Then someone starts blaring music, gives all the kids a bunch of sugar, and turns up the heat in the room. What happens then?
Well the kids burst out of the room start running all over and spread their energy into every part of the house and the yard outside. So the first room is the solar panels, the kids are electrical charges, and the sugar, music, and heat is sunlight. You can fill in the rest. Of course for the high school kids, I told them it was prom and somebody spiked the punch and started playing hip hop. You get the idea.
There Are Great Demonstration Tools Out There
Analogies only get you so far and eventually, you have to show them how it works. Fortunately, there are some cool kits out there that can help you along (full disclosure: I sell kits like this on my website). The most effective in my experience for teaching solar power to kids is the Solar Electric House Kit.
This is a small affordable kit that has a thin film panel that will power a small fan and an LED. The fan is great for showing how direct/indirect sunlight matters as it slows down and speeds up as the sun’s angle changes. The LED can be used to show the importance of energy efficiency. And since the kit does not come with the house itself, the kids can get creative with recycling (a used shoebox is perfect). One class even incorporated some clear plastic and a thermometer to demonstrate solar heating and passive solar concepts.
For smaller kids, there are some cool solar toys out there. There are race cars and motorized animals that they can assemble, which is fun in itself. Then they get to see, plain and simple when there is sunlight on the panel (the party’s on!) the toy moves. Take away sunlight, no movement. This stuff is fun and an easy way to demonstrate solar power.
Make Them Into Energy Police
At the end of each session, I like to give them the assignment to take home. It’s not homework so much as an excuse for them to boss their parents around. I show them an incandescent bulb and a CFL bulb and tell them to home and count how many of each they can find. Then they can explain to their parents why they need CFL and LED bulbs in every fixture.
There also other simple things they can do like closing doors to unused rooms, locking windows, and turning down the thermostat little by little. Energy Star has a great website for kids that empowers them to take charge at home and hopefully whip some wasteful parents into shape.