Westmore Oaks 6th graders built solar suitcases for Kenyan students

By Monica Stark
Sixty students in Ms. Garcia’s science club elective at Westmore Oaks built six solar suitcases and sent two of them off to a school in Kenya—a learning experience that reached beyond the classroom and is helping others in need. The ones staying at home will be used for further solar power education. Garcia attended a two-day professional workshop with 15 Bay Area teachers to learn how to teach solar electricity based on a solar platform called the solar suitcase. Together with her students, Garcia’s class will make the world a brighter place and more hopeful for youth living in regions of energy poverty.

Through building the solar suitcase, a 12 volt dc stand-alone solar system that can power lights, cell phones and small electronic devices, students learned how solar electricity actually works. The program is meant to improve students’ STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) skills and solar energy knowledge while also raising awareness of energy poverty in other parts of the world.

When paired with appropriately sized solar panels and batteries, the solar suitcase is capable of handling up to 200 watts of incoming solar electricity and can light up average sized rooms as well as serve as a charging station. It is an easy-to-use, easy-to-transport complete solar electric system. It is not only a simple technology, but also is extremely valuable to those who live without access to a grid for electricity supply.

As a learning experience, the students had to figure out all the various pieces and purposes of each piece that went into making the solar suitcases. Following engineering practices, the students learned that each piece had a purpose.

Garcia and a previous year’s class worked on solar suitcases, so this year’s students got to see the example of a finished product, which helped them figure out “what goes where” in terms of the various pieces.

Over 1.2 billion people in the world live without access to electricity, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of Central and South America. For students, this means the opportunity to improve their life changes is severely limited by the hours of daylight. Connecting with the outside world is impossible. Their options of kerosene and candlelight are not only expensive sources of light, but also dangers and ineffective. Often students will gather under streetlights and near gas stations to try to study by the light provided. African students must sit for the demanding and difficult national exams to qualify for high school admittance. Without light at night, countless students are disadvantaged in preparation, ruling out further educational opportunities at a young age. Although many carry cell phones, they are unable to charge them regularly which results in a lack of connection to the larger world as well as the security of staying in touch with loved ones.

The students in Ms. Garcia’s science club elective were very motivated by knowing that the solar energy systems they are building will power lights and computers for students whose schools and homes go dark once the sun goes down. The students watched documentaries to help understand the situation in Kenya.

One of the students, Tyler Gabourie said, “it kind of hurt seeing their condition. It made me want to do the project more and see the improvement and that they don’t have to do that anymore. Even if it’s a little bit of a population… it’s more kids that won’t have to walk in the night to go study.”

He said when the class had completed the project and when the light went on, “It felt amazing because at the same time, it worked and it can go to Kenya.”

Garcia continued: “It’s hard for us to even imagine not having electricity ever. We’re not just talking we don’t have electricity because the power went out, there are no lines going to their schools or their homes. So, I really wanted (the class) to grasp that and I feel like for the most part, especially this class, (they) really understood what they were doing to have a major impact on people.”

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