Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Solarize Your School: A Solar Energy System Design Challenge

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Solarize Your School: A Solar Energy System Design Challenge

Article excerpt

As solar energy becomes increasingly affordable, many schools are considering installing new solar power systems. Can students contribute to the design, evaluation, and decision-making process in any way? Many students are familiar with solar power and energy, having researched solar energy on the internet, built solar cookers, inspected mini solar cells, gone on field trips to local solar farms, and so on. Well-informed and motivated, they are just one step away from taking responsibility for their own schools.

In this article, we present Solarize Your School, an engineering project that gives students the opportunity to design and evaluate solar power solutions for their own schools. This STEM project requires students to learn and apply skills and practices related to solar energy and photovoltaic technology concepts, such as architectural measurement and modeling techniques, graphical interpretation and data analysis, budgeting and investing, scientific inquiry and engineering design, and collaboration and communication (see Next Generation Science Standards table, p. 47).

Solarize Your School can be incorporated into environmental science, physical science, and engineering courses, and can be adapted to fit any curriculum scope and time frame. We suggest a 10-day sequence of learning activities. All the technologies and materials mentioned are freely available (see "On the web").


Energy3D is a computer-aided design (CAD) tool for designing buildings and power stations that harness solar energy. In addition to common CAD features, Energy3D integrates the design, modeling, analysis, testing, and evaluation processes to accelerate iterative improvement and enhance design performance (Xie et al. 2018). Students can quickly sketch realistic models of their schools (Figure 1), design solar power systems (Figure 2), analyze the energy generation of their designs (Figure 3, p. 42), and estimate the costs and return on investment (Figure 4, p. 42).

Powered by computational physics and weather data, Energy3D allows students to explore the Sun's path for any given time and location (Figure 5, p. 43), examine how solar energy is distributed on building surfaces (Figure 6, p. 44), and experiment with multiple designs. Energy3D has been tested by thousands of middle school, high school, and college students. The majority of students learn to create 3D structures and solar power systems within one or two class sessions (Chao et al. 2017; Goldstein, Loy, and Purzer 2017; Kite and Park 2018; Schimpf, Sleezer, and Xie 2018).

Virtual Solar Grid (VSG) is software that models interconnected, distributed solar energy systems and storage on a global scale (Figure 7, p. 44). The world map interface allows students to navigate to locations of interest, view existing solar power projects, and download Energy3D models of those projects. Students can learn from hundreds of existing real-world projects and can also submit their own. Once reviewed and accepted, students' projects can become valuable public assets for renewable energy researchers, educators, and advocates (Figure 8, p. 45). As students contribute data points representing the solar power potential of usable sites, they actually make it increasingly possible to answer big questions like how much of humanity's energy needs can be realistically met by solar power generation and power grid optimization.

Google Earth Pro shows high-resolution images of the Earth and provides a variety of tools to take measurements (Figure 9, p. 45). Students can use Google Earth Pro to conduct a virtual site survey of their campuses, noting design constraints such as building structures and rooftop fixtures. They will also use elevation data (if available) and the virtual ruler to measure the dimensions of school buildings and surrounding objects.

Project overview (day 1)

To set the stage, discuss the numerous ways solar energy can be harnessed and used, the molecular mechanism underlying photovoltaic (PV) technology, various types of PV projects, and how solar engineers design PV systems (see "On the web"). …

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