Zach Schroeder runs a solar schools program at a public school in Chicago. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Midwest Energy News

“It’s elementary, my dear Watson,” said a boy in Zach Schroeder’s 7th and 8th grade science class in a Chicago public school last month. “Let’s do this, it’s going to be amazing!”

He was among the clusters of students racing to assemble a small solar panel, connecting wires and attaching a light bulb, fan and noisemaker. A few minutes later they placed the solar panel in front of bright incandescent lights Schroeder borrowed from the school theater, and the light bulb glowed, the fan started spinning and the noisemaker chimed.

The solar kits the class is using are meant to help teach students the basics of solar energy, but most of them were already very familiar and supportive of solar thanks to lessons in their science class and discussions with teachers or out-of-state family members who have solar panels.

The school itself, Skinner North Classical Elementary, is partially powered by solar. It has a 1 kW array mounted on an awning that can provide roughly enough electricity for one classroom. It is one of 400 such installations statewide provided by the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation as part of the Illinois Solar Schools program.

The foundation funds small solar installations for educational purposes and offers teacher training and educational kits to K-12 public and private schools statewide.

Schools need to raise 10 percent of the cost of 1 kW installations. Schroeder launched a fundraiser wherein Skinner students collected loose change from their homes and family cars and classes competed to see who could raise the most.

“They’re digging coins out of the couch cushions, kindergartners are bringing in milk cartons of change, they were really excited about it,” said Schroeder.

Solar smart

When Schroeder went over the basics of the argument for solar energy and how a solar cell works, students completed sentences before he could finish.

“Our kids are pretty aware of the current global issues, they’re proud of that,” Schroeder said. “Not to say they’re nerdy, but they are abreast of current events and kind of competitive about that. It’s the culture of the school.”

But the students were tripped up by a question over how many solar panels would be needed to power the entire world.

The students eagerly shouted out answers:

“A billion!”

“One million!”


“Seven billion — one for each person.”

Many were surprised when Schroeder showed a map developed by the Land Art Generator Initiative, an international sustainable design organization, that showed the earth could be powered by relatively tiny areas of each continent covered in solar panels.

Illinois Solar Schools helps schools set up a real-time data portal showing current energy output, so data can be used in math or other lessons. The students also get a dose of chemistry. Schroeder explained to his class how the positive side of a silicon solar cell includes boron molecules while the negative side has phosphorus, causing “extra” electrons to migrate from the phosphorus molecules to the boron ones when activated by photons from the sun.

Schroeder’s students say they would like to have solar panels on their own homes some day. “It costs a lot up front but then you save money on energy,” said one girl. “My roof is probably too steep,” said another girl. “But we designed a house in science class where I had solar panels in the panes on the windows.”

Spreading solar learning

Glen Kizer is the field representative for the Illinois Solar Schools program. He noted that solar energy is a good topic for STEM education, and also helps inspire and prepare students for clean energy jobs.

“The more people understand the technology, the more likely they are to understand and want to get hired in these particular industries,” he said. “If you want to be a coal miner, jobs are getting cut back, putting your name on a list is unlikely to result in a job. But if you really want to work in solar or wind, there’s a good chance you can get a job, anywhere in the U.S.”

Schools across the Midwest and the country are embracing on-site solar as a way to teach students about energy and provide real-life examples of math, technology, science and economics in action. Though public schools are suffering budget crises in many states and districts, there are various places where teachers, parents and administrators can turn for funding and support for installing solar panels and developing curriculum, including from energy companies and other businesses, non-profit organizations and the government.

In Waukegan, Illinois, for example, the company NRG which owns a coal plant in town spent about $3 million to install 2,200 solar panels on seven schools, saving the district about $50,000 a year in energy costs, according to NRG. Waukegan teachers also incorporate lessons about the solar panels into their curriculum. A large monitor in each school’s lobby displays real-time information about the panels’ output.

The U.S. Department of Energy publishes curriculum and lesson plans related to solar energy for K-12 grades, including an exercise making a solar oven out of a pizza box and tin foil. The Florida Solar Energy Center and Solar Oregon are among numerous other organizations that publish curriculum and other resources on solar for different grade levels. 

The non-profit Foundation for Environmental Education based in Columbus, Ohio partners with companies including Wal-Mart and American Electric Power (AEP) to get solar onto schools and into classrooms, with multiple schools participating in Ohio and in Illinois.

Kizer notes that the Illinois Solar Schools program is educational not only for students and teachers but for district administrators, who learn about the solar installation and planning process and could use that knowledge to install more and larger arrays.

A 1 kW array obtained through Solar Schools “doesn’t eliminate their electric bill, but it does teach them how they would go through the process” to install more solar, Kizer said.

In the Chicago area, the IBEW labor union in partnership with the National Electrical Contractors Association helps schools maintain and improve existing solar arrays along with installing new smaller educational arrays for schools. For example at Audubon Elementary on Chicago’s North Side, an IBEW team rehabbed a 10 kW existing array with grounding repairs, a new inverter and new panels to replace broken ones.

Teachers can also get hands-on training in solar installation and technology at the IBEW-NECA renewable energy training center on Chicago’s South Side.

“We are hoping that the solar school programs will educate the students on the very basic renewable energy concepts and they grow up and expand their knowledge on these concepts,” said Harry Ohde, a leader of the training center and the IBEW-NECA solar schools efforts. “Renewable energy is not just the future but it is now and we have to have a workforce ready for this industry.”

Solar on the South Side

Adrienne Kazanecki’s sixth-grade class at Alice L. Barnard Elementary on the far South Side of Chicago was abuzz as students worked on an energy lab provided as part of the solar schools program. She has been using the lesson every year since receiving the training and free equipment five years ago.

Students taped thermometers to opposite sides of a piece of cardboard and shined an incandescent light on the one labeled “sunny,” then graphed the different temperatures. Others attached alligator clips to nails punched into an apple and to a micrometer, watching as the voltage rose.

“The closer you put it to the apple, the higher it goes,” observed one girl.

Such hands-on learning in the basics of energy helps students understand the concepts of solar and energy storage. Kazanecki notes that she uses a twist on the scientific method typically taught in school.

“In the traditional scientific method, students research before they conduct the investigation,” she explained. “The kit has them try to determine what is happening before they read the background knowledge. One of my students yesterday noticed that the light-stick in hot water glowed brighter. She knows that heat energy is molecules moving faster. She wondered and asked me how the molecules moving faster caused the light to be brighter. 

“Learning by doing, and wondering because you are engaged is long-term learning.”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.