How I teach - Why solar panels light up lessons

13th June 2014 at 01:00
They offer unlimited learning opportunities across subjects

Sticking a solar panel on the roof of your school may seem like a sensible cost-saving decision and not much else. But such a viewpoint would be very short-sighted.

In the six months since we installed solar panels at our primary school, the educational impact has far surpassed the economic advantages. And it's not just in science where learning has been revitalised.

Our panels were supplied as part of the Staffordshire Sunny Schools project from Gen Community, an organisation founded to finance low-carbon, decentralised energy generation. The initiative offered free solar panels to 25 schools, funded in part by community shares. We were selected as a pilot school and the panels were installed in October last year.

We wanted to make the practical benefits clear to our pupils, so our site supervisor suggested directing the power from the panels to the ICT suite. With 32 computers and air conditioning, this room is the school's biggest consumer of energy. Now, every time a child switches on a computer, they understand that the machine is being powered by electricity generated from the sun.

We placed a display panel showing how much energy is being generated in the main corridor, at a height that means it is visible to all children. Their surprise to see the numbers on the panel rising even on a cloudy day led to an exploration of the science of heat, light, greenhouse gases and atmosphere. Although the depth of their understanding varies with age, all pupils realise that we are helping to reduce greenhouse gases while also saving money.

The solar panels have sparked learning in maths and economics, too. We generate more energy than we need to power our ICT suite, so we sell the surplus to the National Grid. The solar panels feature in the school's enterprise project - we are now energy producers, traders and sellers. In lessons, students can calculate how much electricity has been produced and how much is left to trade. We have generated almost 3,000 units, and pupils can plot graphs over set periods of time.

In fact, the panels are helping us to meet national curriculum objectives in many subjects. In history, classes investigate Staffordshire's former coal mines and explore our growing use of nuclear power and imported gas. In geography, students consider where electricity is stored, how it travels and where the surplus goes.

Our pupils are also very interested in green issues: the younger ones, for instance, are aware of the benefits of recycling, while older children increasingly understand the need for careful management of the world's finite resources. They realise how important it is to look after what we have and to invest in new technologies for the future.

Solar panels aren't just a business opportunity for schools - the educational benefits are boundless.

Paul Moon is headteacher of Millfield County Primary School in Staffordshire

10 ways to teach energy generation

1. Energy enlightenment

Nurture a generation of eco experts in this lesson, which asks students to work together to research alternative energy sources and building materials.

2. Renewed knowledge

Introduce pupils to renewable and non-renewable energy with this informative PowerPoint.

3. Power plans

Get students wound up about wind power and start a heated debate about solar solutions in this lesson on renewable energy.

4. Bright ideas

Use these information sheets, comprehension tasks and activities to test children's knowledge of how electricity can be generated from renewable energy sources.

5. Sunny side up

Take your class on a journey to Zambia with this video exploring how solar panels are used to generate electricity.

6. School audit

Students discover how energy efficient their school is in this comprehensive audit activity.

7. Cloud cover concerns

Ask pupils to investigate how cloud cover affects the amount of electricity that solar cells can produce, using these worksheets and PowerPoints.

8. Watt is the source?

Try these activities, including a fun quiz and self-assessment, to help younger children understand and compare renewable and nonrenewable energy.

9. Wind versus water

Use this detailed plan to deliver a lesson in which students work in groups to assess the advantages and disadvantages of different renewable energy sources.

10. Flair for solar

In this lesson from Nasa, pupils look at satellite data to determine where the use of solar energy would be most effective, developing knowledge of graphs along the way.


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