Above, from left: Carson Reay, Emma Karagas Spencer, Sonja Stairs, Stella Young, and teacher Karen Richard (teammate LuAnne Dreves not pictured).
It was fall of 2017, and the five girls who made up the Envirothon team at Glen Lake Community Schools had an idea, a big and good idea: install solar power at this rural northern Michigan school.
“We were always talking about future projects, and solar was something that we had been talking about for a while,” says Envirothon team member Stella Young. “We had just finished our previous project and someone mentioned solar, and we just went from there.”
Glen Lake is small, with graduating classes of about 60 students, and when it comes to science projects, the go-to ally is science teacher Karen Richard. She has led the Envirothon team here for 19 years, and her teams have won the state competition eight times (including in 2017 with the solar panel project); even more important she’s the kind of teacher who looks for ways to say yes to kids with ideas. “They approached me and said, ‘We’d love to get a solar panel here.’ And I said, ‘Great, what do we need to do?’” Richard recalls.
True to her science teacher self, Richard worked with the students—Sonja Stairs, Carson Reay, Stella Young, Emma Spencer, and LuAnne Dreves—to decide that research was the first step. How much do solar panels cost? How much electricity do solar panels produce in northern Michigan? How much power does the school use? What are other benefits? What are all the pros and cons?
“I think what excited us the most was that it was the biggest project we had ever done and we were excited by the challenge,” Young says.
In January Richard had come across a competition with cash awards that encouraged solar power at schools, sponsored by the Ecology Center, in Ann Arbor. “The girls applied for that and did a nice PowerPoint presentation and video, and we ended up being a top finalist!” Richard says. The team received $500 for the 4th-place finish. That PowerPoint presentation also became the basis for other presentations.
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“It was definitely daunting at the beginning. But we were very fortunate to have Mrs. Richard as our mentor. She kept us on track and really pushed us to succeed,” Young says.
Navigating the Bureaucracy
The students pulled together their data and weaved their way through the school administrative system. Along the way they learned an important lesson: knowing how to push a project through a bureaucracy is as important a skill as understanding the technical aspects. The students met with their principal, then the superintendent, then the curriculum committee, then the building and grounds committee. Each time they received the OK to take the next step.
Finally, in May, the Envirothon team presented to the school board. “They were very nervous to present to the school board, but it was something they really believed strongly in and they were determined to keep pushing it,” Richard says. The school board was impressed and gave the nod to pursue grants.
“An exciting part, for me at least, was when we presented to the whole school board,” Young says. “That was kind of like the culmination of all of our work up until that point.”
The students’ research revealed it would take a very large project to power the entire school with solar—a far bigger project than what they could take on (though they liked that idea). Instead, they came to see value in the educational opportunities an installation would provide. Students could learn physics, develop problem-solving skills, discover the potential of solar energy, study how the panel’s power production changes with the angle of the sun, develop an ethic of environmental stewardship and more. The proposed system—a 24-panel array mounted on the ground—will produce a little less than 1% of the school’s power.
“If we were to install a solar system that would provide enough electricity to meet all electrical needs at school it would take 125 24-panel arrays to meet these needs,” the students wrote in their PowerPoint presentation to the school board.
Still, the project is ambitious for a small school, and an added challenge is that lead students graduate and move on. Four of the girls on the team graduated in 2018. But the project still lives, and this year’s students are already hatching fundraising plans, like selling wristbands at football games. And the hunt for grants continues. “So far I have applied for seven grants,” Richard says. But the school still has less than half of the $27,000 it’ll need to install the size system the team proposed. “And most of the grants require we spend the money by July 2019.” The game clock is ticking, and Richard’s Envirothon team has taken the field ...
Source: 2017 Envirothon team, Glen Lake Schools, PowerPoint presentation