Two for the price of one – promoting solar literacy in the community college

July 29, 2015
Poster Session — President’s Hall 2
4:00 pm  -  7:00 pm

Neither of our two schools alone had sufficient momentum behind solar education to sustain a decent project, so we teamed up. Two similarly sized community colleges in two states in the Washington, DC metropolitan area earned “Small Solar School” designation, thanks to a Department of Energy funded grant administered through the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center. It almost couldn’t be done; administrative hurdles would prevent two separate colleges from sharing a grant. We put our engineering problem solving skills to the test and found a way for two schools to share the equipment and responsibility for fulfilling the grant. The result: two “Small Solar Schools” for the price of one.

Our long-term objective was to generate interest in renewable energy and build some assets ̶ physical equipment, personnel and precedent ̶ that will be used to promote solar PV as a way of life in our campus communities. There were a lot of things we wanted to try, and will try, eventually. It turns out that the road to solar literacy is filled with baby steps.

The biggest take-away from this project is the idea that if we want to teach students about solar power, just do it. The topic can be adapted for any course in any format, and every semester, there are multitudes of potential dissemination portals, including those we create ourselves. For instance, in a computer programming class for electrical engineers, the students can be given a programming task or a design task using input signals from a battery or controller. Even without a formal project assignment, the most basic form of instruction is simply to make the equipment available and perform a demonstration and hands-on exercise or experiment. In an Introduction to Engineering class, in a single class period, eleven students gained a working knowledge of solar power. For them, solar power is no longer an abstract concept, but something that they can touch, manipulate, control, and engineer.

The cost of a single solar panel is low enough for the smallest budget. The 24” x 24” solar panel that our purchasing department found on Amazon is the perfect size for class projects and should become a staple in the classroom and the laboratory. In fact, during the project, one of our campuses finalized design of a new engineering lab, and the solar projects influenced the capital project design team to incorporate storage space for solar PV instructional materials, in addition to outdoor education space. Already, we have literally changed the landscape of engineering education in a visible way, which will permit the campus community to see solar power in action. We believe that our story will inspire others to just start teaching solar power, and to keep doing it.