Spreading a little light around the world | PostIndependent.com

Spreading a little light around the world

Kelley Cox Post Independent

Learning about negative and positive wire connections, circuit breakers and solar power applications is just part of the latest lesson in Grace Tennant’s sixth grade gifted and talented science class at Glenwood Springs Middle School.

“I couldn’t really imagine how hard it would be to do stuff without lights,” said student Kai Uyehara, referring to a lead-in discussion on the Solar Suitcase Project focusing on the poor conditions in health clinics and schools in many developing countries.

Uyehara and the other 15 students in his class are busy assembling the solar suitcases through a program offered by Carbondale-based Solar Energy International (SEI), in partnership with the global organization We Care Solar.

The kits include a 40-watt solar panel and electrical system to charge an LED light station. It could also power a small refrigeration system for a blood bank, and has hook-ups for charging headlamps, cell phones, two-way radios and other small electronic devices.

It’s a simple solution that can make a world of difference, even saving lives, in remote places and poverty stricken areas around the globe.

“It’s really cool to do something like this, and it makes me proud that we’re helping other people,” Uyehara said.

“Just knowing we’ll be able to help people who can’t really help themselves” makes the project worthwhile for classmate Chelsi Chavez.

“I like being able to work in a small group, and the whole thing just gives you that good feeling that you’ve accomplished something important,” added another GSMS student, Cameron Porter.

One of the three suitcases being made by the Glenwood Springs students is to be sent to a school in the Darfur region of Sudan in northern Africa.

The others will stay here for the students to use as a learning tool, and for them to give presentations to fellow students and community organizations, Tennant said.

Each suitcase costs about $1,000 to assemble. In addition to some fundraising on the part of students, the GSMS project was made possible by a grant from the Club Rotario in Glenwood Springs.

“It’s definitely something I’d like to see continue with my kids every year,” said Tennant, who is in her 11th year teaching at GSMS. “I like being able to teach kids how to help create a more sustainable world. That’s important to me as an educator.”

Tennant has taken two classes through SEI’s Solar in the Schools education outreach program, learning about solar and other renewable energy applications and how to teach it as part of her science curriculum in the classroom.

During one of those classes she had the opportunity to hear the founder of We Care Solar, Dr. Laura Stachel.

The solar suitcase project started after Stachel had gone to northern Nigeria in 2008 to study ways to lower maternal mortality in state hospitals.

According to her story posted at http://www.wecaresolar.org, Stachel witnessed deplorable conditions, including sporadic electricity that impaired maternity and surgical care.

“Without a reliable source of electricity, nighttime deliveries were attended in near darkness, cesarean sections were canceled or conducted by flashlight, and critically ill patients waited hours or days for life-saving procedures,” Stachel writes. “The outcomes were often tragic.”

Stachel, together with her husband Hal Aronson, a solar energy educator in Berkeley, Calif., co-founded We Care Solar to address the situation.

After designing an off-grid solar electric system for the hospital Stachel had visited, Aronson created the suitcase-sized prototype, which eventually resulted in the Solar Suitcase Project.

The kits have since been distributed in more than 15 different countries around the world, and were instrumental in the medical relief efforts in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

With support from organizations like the Blum Center for Developing Economies and the MacArthur Foundation, the program was introduced as part of education programs across the United States and around the world.

“It’s become the best project I’ve done with SEI and the students,” said Soozie Lindbloom, a former coordinator of the Solar in the Schools program who now oversees the Solar Suitcase project in area schools for SEI.

“It’s something that hits on science, technology, engineering and math requirements, as well as why energy efficiency and renewable energy are important,” she said. “It’s also service learning for the students.”

As part of their studies, the GSMS students are learning about the war-torn region of Darfur and the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan. That was the name given to the thousands of boys and young men who were orphaned or displaced, and many of whom found political asylum in the United States, during the two decades of civil war that finally ended in 2005.

“We talked about the political unrest and why they became refugees,” Tennant said. “And then we talked about why a lot of the country doesn’t have electricity and lights, including many schools, and why they’re receiving these kits.”

Students will be asked to write about the project, and will also be presenting their studies to fellow sixth-grade students at GSMS and to Club Rotario, she said.

Lindbloom, working with Yampah Mountain High School science teacher Susy Ellison, also brought the Solar Suitcase Project to students in Yampah’s Teen Mothers Program.

“That was really cool, because it was mothers helping mothers,” said Lindbloom of the connection to maternity wards in hospitals and clinics in Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda.

Ellison also heard Dr. Stachel speak during her local visit, and now co-teaches the Renewable Energy for Educators class with Lindbloom.

“We look around here at all these multi-kilowatt home solar systems, and it’s good to step back and realize what you can do with just a few watts of power,” Ellison said of the solar suitcases. “When you look at how many lives you can impact with such a simple solution, it’s really impressive.”

The hands-on learning and real-life science application is also important for students, she said.

“They know they have to properly wire and assemble it, because it can’t come apart when you’re in the middle of doing surgery,” Ellison said. “You have to do it right, and that’s also an important message for the kids.”

This is the third year that the Solar Suitcase Project has been available to classrooms in Carbondale, as well as Paonia, through SEI’s involvement.

“There’s demand to do more, but one of the hurdles is raising the money,” Lindbloom said, adding that any schools that want to participate have to do their own fundraising.

The Solar in the Schools program is also growing, she said, reaching close to 3,500 students from throughout the region this year alone, Lindbloom said.

For more information, contact Lindbloom at (970) 309-1588 or soozie@solarenergy.org.

jstroud@postindependent.com