FUN WITH THE SUN: teaching kids about solar energy

Summer is a great time to teach kids about solar energy. (So are spring, fall and winter – but summer is when organizations tend to schedule enrichment activities for obvious reasons.)

Doug and I got the idea to teach a class about solar energy three years ago when the youth summer camp program of Shakerag Alley in Mineral Point, WI, reached out to us. Their director is an old friend of ours, and she asked if we wanted to contribute something to their nature study program.


As all nature is driven by the sun, we decided to put together a program on solar energy. We have a nice, portable solar oven which can deliver a pan of brownies on a sunny day, which seemed like a great solar energy demo for a kids’ class.

IMG_4629We prepared a short powerpoint overview and got the kids outside to explore sunlight with prisms and magnifying glasses. A magnifying glass is a great way to demonstrate how we can focus the power of the sun, and everybody loves to set things on fire.
We taught that class for two years at Shakerag Alley, accommodating as best we could their population – kids K-5 – and took the same presentation to the kids’ tent at the Midwest Alternative Energy Association Fair in Custer, Wisconsin.

This year we added a new venue, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville College for Kids and Middle University July 10-13.


UW-Platteville has been offering summer enrichment classes for grade school and high school students in the region since 1982. And this year’s class broke all previous attendance records with 192 students (23 students received full scholarships thanks to grants and sponsorships) served by 23 instructors.

We were excited to create a new curriculum for older (middle school) students – eager to delve a little more deeply into the technology and physics of solar energy.


The UW-Platteville Middle University classes included Ancient Egypt, Photography, Miniature Gardening, and Turning (on a lathe). So our class, Understanding and Harnessing Solar Energy, attracted kids with a scientific bent, and they were a joy to explore the wonders of the sun with.

fullsizeoutput_13dbThe classes were two days of about 3 hours each. We had one set of students for Monday-Tuesday and a second set for Wednesday-Thursday. That was enough time to examine the nature of solar energy, what it’s made of, and how if affects our planet.

To up the hands-on interest, we decided to add making solar ovens out of a pizza boxes, something I had seen mentioned on line. There are lots of sites to check this out, and here is one I used from Scientific American.

IMG_4617We collected generous donations of (unused) pizza boxes from area Pizza Huts for our 20 middle school students and the 40 kids at Shakerag Alley. Putting the collectors together gave us a chance to talk about many of the principles we had been presenting, and though the first two days at Platteville we never got enough sun to get them cookin’, students were able to record temps in the 130s using the the digital probe-type thermometers that Doug had on hand.

For the Wednesday-Thursday group we had sunnier afternoons and students recorded temps pushing 200 degrees F. We sent home the ovens with our students, where we hope they got to stage their own solar energy demo and observe how they can use them to melt the chocolate and brown the marshmallow in a S‘more.

20150625_082600_blend131.171More than that, I hope we have started some young minds thinking about the opportunities to harness solar energy, to spot solar collectors that are all around us, and start to look forward to ways they too can make the world cleaner and greener with solar energy.

If you have the opportunity to explore solar energy with youngsters, we would love to compare notes with you.

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