GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Earth benefits from many forms of energy, both renewable — such as solar, wind and hydropower — and nonrenewable sources such as coal and natural gas. But it all revolves around the sun and the energy it provides.
Just ask the students at Sopris Elementary School in Glenwood Springs, who have spent a good part of the past school year learning about the basic concepts of energy through a pilot “Energy in the Classroom” program sponsored by Solar Energy International.
“We learned about growing food and how to use the sun for power,” said Sean Phillips, a fifth-grade student at Sopris who was helping classmate Shannyn Biggs explain how a solar village works.
A scale model of the village was on display at the school’s Spring Solar Fair on Friday, which served as the culmination of SEI’s Solar in the Schools/Energy in the Classroom project.
“We’re explaining to the younger kids about solar and how it works to power the village,” Biggs said, pointing to the small electric grid that’s powered by a tiny solar generator.
“Solar is fun, and the sun is important because it keeps us going,” she said.
Solar is an easy, hands-on way to explain energy in general, said Courtney Boyd, an intern with SEI who helped organize Friday’s Solar Fair.
“Why use batteries or plug something in when you can use solar panels?” she asked.
According to an explanation of the program from SEI, “Students who have taken part in this project can tell you that there are many sources of energy available to us and that solar is not the only source that we can learn from.
“However, we believe that solar thermal (heat) and solar electric (photovoltaic) energy are the most accessible means for elementary school students to work directly and safely with energy in a hands-on setting.”
SEI Executive Director Kathy Swartz said the goal is to expand the solar-based curriculum to all of the elementary schools in the Roaring Fork School District Re-1 and eventually to schools around the country.
“There is so much solar right here in the valley, so it’s easy to show students how it works,” Swartz said. “We are looking at developing a more comprehensive program and to have it accepted as part of the curriculum in all of the district’s elementary schools.”
Friday’s Solar Fair included a range of displays, including solar ovens, solar-electric circuit demonstrations and competitions pitting human power against the sun’s power.
The most popular by far was the solar- and pedal-powered balloon-popping race.
In this competition, students took turns pedaling a stationary bike that powered a small air compressor with a balloon on the end of it. On the other side of the table was an 80-watt solar panel powering another compressor with a balloon.
“Here comes a cloud. You might have a chance!” parent volunteer Jared Coe yelled, prompting the student who was on the bike at the time to pedal harder and try to make their balloon burst before the solar-inflated balloon.
The cloud quickly passed, though, and within seconds, the sun was back to full power. Boom! Sun wins again.
“It’s good to have some sparse clouds mixed with sun,” said Noah Davis, Solar in the Schools director for SEI. “That way the kids can really see what happens when the sun goes behind a cloud and (the generator) slows or stops.”
Any kind of race is always exciting for kids, especially if it involves blowing up balloons, Coe added.
“They all think they can beat the sun,” he said. And, in few cases, pedal power indeed won.
“It’s just a fun way to help them realize the power we can harness from the sun,” Coe said.
Sopris Elementary was chosen to pilot the program because it has a dedicated science teacher rather than having classroom teachers incorporate science into their study plans as other schools do.
“Solar is such a good teaching tool because it is so hands-on and the students are able to articulate how it is relevant to their lives,” said Stephanie Dungan, who teaches science to students in kindergarten through fifth grade at the school.
The curriculum also fits well with standards in other academic areas besides science, and “with some tweaking,” it can be applied for younger or older students, as well, Dungan said.
“The Solar Fair gives them a chance to speak for themselves and to be proud in explaining what they’re learning,” she said. “We also tried to incorporate inquiry so they can learn and discover on their own.”
Sopris recently was awarded a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) grant to train a second dedicated science teacher and to expand science learning at the school, Principal Kathy Whiting said.
“Sparking an interest in science when kids are younger is really when it happens, especially for girls,” Whiting said. “This program really shows how worthwhile it is to have that focus on science.
“We do hope to be able to take some of the lessons we have developed here and to share them throughout the district.”