Energy educator’s program ignites youth imagination
Ryan Summerlin May 14, 2014
Carbondale resident Noah Davis and his family are environmental migrants. Davis, 43, is originally from Ohio, but his wife, Danika, is Australian. Davis, a snowboard bum in the 1990s, met her at Beaver Creek while she was training as a halfpipe competitor. They moved to Australia in 2003. Davis earned a second degree — a BS in education from the University of Melbourne — before moving to Omeo, a remote town in the state of Victoria near the Snowy Mountains in the southeast corner of the continent.
Davis thought he’d landed in paradise. He got a teaching job at the local middle school and started raising a family. “There was river rafting, kayaking, a ski resort 30 miles away, and the coast was an hour and a half away,” he recalled.
But, in 2007, paradise began to burn.
Southeastern Australia has always suffered wildfires and drought, but Davis said things got more intense. “It got incredibly hot and incredibly dry and started burning every summer,” he said. “We spent most of our time preparing the house to defend it against fire.”
The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires were the worst in the country’s history and swept through the area on the heels of a record-breaking heat wave. “The grass was so dry, you could see your footprints after walking through it,” Davis recalled. “[Ranchers] were shooting their sheep.” The Australian Climate Council has since linked the heat waves and bushfires, which continue to break records, to climate change.
Davis, his wife, daughter Petunia and son Dewey moved back to the States that year, and Davis found a job with Solar Energy International (SEI) in Carbondale. He realized he needed to teach people how to deal with climate change. “When disasters on a grand scale are going on, no one’s worried about light bulbs,” he explained. “But here [the climate] is still pleasant enough to work on solutions.”
After teaching renewable energy education in elementary and middle schools, Davis wanted to do something different. “I was trying to figure out how to work with high school students,” he said. And Davis found that a car was the best way to teach teens about energy. In 2013, he designed and built a solar, remote-controlled (RC) car, and Solar Rollers was born.
“The kids were super-engaged and learned a ton,” he explained, despite the inefficiency of the prototype. “The first one had a trailer with 14 [8-inch-by-11-inch] solar panels hooked up to the car, and it just barely moved,” he explained with a chuckle. “I had to push-start it with my foot.”
Nonetheless, the program attracted students from schools throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, who tested their cars at a National Renewable Energy Lab event in Golden last year. “The cars were real race cars,” said Davis. “And it was evident that we had [a program] that could be scaled up.”
So, Davis left SEI to start Energetics Education, a nonprofit organization that could take Solar Rollers to another level and allow him to develop more youth-focused, energy education programs. “The idea is that adults have not been very successful with solving energy problems,” he said, “So let’s give young people the tools they need to make changes as they enter the workforce and become consumers.” Solar Rollers teaches kids how energy systems work because, he explained, energy use is the most important human interaction with the planet. “It’s so easy to convince yourself that you’re maintaining an interaction with the planet by hiking up Castle Creek but it’s also about energy use in your car or in your home,” he explained.
Solar Roller teams design and build their own RC cars to learn about energy use from collection to consumption. “It makes it easier for them to relate when you say your car or house or lifestyle should be more efficient, because they’ve had experience with the energy system,” said Davis. And, he added, it’s more exciting than teaching the energy system of a boiler in the high school basement.
Solar Rollers, the first program of its kind in the nation, recently won the Excellence in Secondary Education award from the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education and has more than doubled its enrollment.
On May 17, nine teams from Summit, Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties will compete at what Davis calls a “big, stinking huge event” at Glenwood Springs High School. Starting at high solar noon (1:05 p.m.), the teams will test their solar RC cars at a large race track set up at the north end of the football field. Colorado State Sen. Gail Schwartz will be on-hand to give out awards.
Other event features include energy education displays and RC car and full-size electric car displays. Conventional RC car enthusiasts can also charge their cars with energy from the sun and take advantage of ramp challenges throughout the day.
Davis hopes Energetics Education will give him a chance to work on all kinds of projects, including a national Solar Rollers program and teaching youth how to reduce energy at home. For now, though, local interest in Solar Rollers is spreading like wildfire. For more information about Saturday’s event, go to www.solarrollers.org or call 970-425-6426.