Solar panels providing 'teachable' moments at midstate schools

Houston school incorporates solar device into curriculum

Huntington Middle School is one of thousands of schools across the country that have incorporated solar technology. A solar panel was installed at the Houston school in 2007.
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Huntington Middle School is one of thousands of schools across the country that have incorporated solar technology. A solar panel was installed at the Houston school in 2007.

Nearly 5,500 American schools — or about 5 percent — have incorporated solar technology, including some in Middle Georgia.

Over the past seven years, the cost of installing solar devices has decreased by more than 60 percent, and solar power in K-12 schools has increased by 86 percent in three years, according to a report from The Solar Foundation, Generation 180 and the Solar Energy Industries Association.

States with the most schools using solar energy are Nevada at 23 percent; Hawaii and California, 15 percent; Arizona, 14 percent; and New Jersey, 13 percent. Georgia has about 35 schools that have solar technology, including Huntington Middle and Thomson Middle in Houston County and Putnam County High School.

Flint Energies installed a 1.2-kilowatt solar panel at the two Houston County schools, as well as at Marion County Middle/High School. Each system cost between $12,000 and $16,000, said Marian McLemore, Flint Energies' vice president of cooperative communications.

In October 2016, Thomson Middle received its solar panel, which is at the back of the school. By mid-January, a flat screen panel will be set up to show the amount of energy being used, principal Walter Stephens said.

"It's actually powering some of the lights in our gym," said Terra McMillan, the school's science chairwoman and science, technology, engineering and math coordinator. "We wanted to install it because right now Georgia is becoming a huge hub for solar farms. We want to get a jump start on training our students for those jobs."

Sixth-graders work the most with the solar panel since nonrenewable energy is part of the curriculum. They look at data online from the solar panel in real time. It's important for students to see from an early age how pivotal the energy source can be in their lives, Stephens said.

"Looking at alternative energy resources is very important, especially for their generation when they become adults," McMillan said. "This generation needs to be the generation to look at solar panels to see how to make them more efficient."

Huntington Middle's solar panel — named "Sunny Boy" — was installed behind the gym on Earth Day 2007. The system doesn't provide enough energy to run the building, but it's used as a teaching tool, principal Gwendolyn Taylor said.

The solar panel provides "teachable moments" for all of the school's grade levels, but it's used most in eighth-grade when students are taught physical science, said Teris Dunn, an eighth-grade science teacher at Huntington Middle.

Energy is such an abstract concept, but the panel gives students tangible proof that connects to the curriculum and the real world, said Brittney Walker, an eighth-grade science teacher. Students use an online database to check solar readings, and they also design, build and test a model of a solar-powered home as part of the energy unit.

"Our hopes are not only to educate students about solar energy but also to inspire them to develop new renewable energy technologies for the future," McLemore said.

The solar panel and a greenhouse are part of the school's efforts to become STEM certified, Taylor said. She hopes that Flint will want to add another panel in the future.

Putnam County High has had its 1-kilowatt solar panel, sponsored by Tri-County Electric Membership Corp., for three or four years. The panel plays a role in the three-course energy pathway that the charter school is trying to grow, principal Marc Dastous said.

A new energy teacher has been hired to start teaching courses in the pathway after the holiday break. The program now has about 40 participants, and students can train for careers in biofuel, solar and nuclear energy.

Like at the other Middle Georgia schools, Putnam High students go online to see how much power is being created and how the solar array works, Dastous said.

"I'm pretty excited about the potential that we have down the road," Dastous said. "We need something as a society to try to curb any damage that we're doing to our planet. I think if we can teach kids how to do that, that's benefiting them in the future."