Solar Panels Power New Schools—and New Ways Of Learning

A view of the 1,700 solar panels on the roof of Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia. Over the course of the year, these panels provide more than enough energy to power the school.
CHRIS BERDIK FOR THE HECHINGER REPORT

DRESSED IN PASTEL pink and green for an early spring day, second-grader Katherine Cribbs was learning about energy on a virtual field trip—to her own school.

With a flurry of touch-screen taps, she explored the “energy dashboard” of Discovery Elementary in Arlington, Virginia. On her tablet, she swiped through 360-degree views of her school, inside and out. She clicked on icons embedded in the virtual classroom to learn about energy-saving features such as LED lightsand super-insulated exterior walls made of concrete-filled foam blocks. Exploring the virtual school kitchen, she could read about how the lack of a deep fryer means less energy is needed for venting grease from the air. Another swipe whisked her up to the school’s roof, where about 1,700 solar panels spread out before her.

After a few minutes, she looked up from her computer to explain her progress in a confident voice that rose above the second-grade din. “I learned that our solar panels rotate,” she said. “So, wherever the sun moves, the panels go, too.”

In addition to this virtual tour, Discovery’s dashboard displays, in real time, the school’s energy generation. And in colorful bar graphs and pie charts, it also tracks energy use—broken down by lighting, plug load, kitchen, and HVAC. The tally reveals that Discovery generates more energy through its solar array than it uses over the course of the year.

Buildings that make at least as much energy as they use are called “net-zero” (and “net positive” if they make more than they need). And nationwide, K-12 schools are leading a fledgling “net-zero” building boom that has grown from a few proof-of-concept structures a decade ago to hundreds of buildings completed or under-construction.

Dozens of these ultra-green schools are going up in every sort of district—urban and rural, affluent and lower income, blue state and red state. Much of the advocacy for net-zero buildings has focused on environmental and economic incentives. K-12 schools run up a $6 billion annual energy tab every year, the Department of Energy reports—more than they spend on textbooks and computers combined, and second only to the cost of teacher salaries. But the K-12 schools leading the net-zero charge are uncovering major educational benefits as well.

WHILE DISCOVERY’S SECOND-GRADERS scoured their school for light and heat energy, a group of third graders huddled around a table to brainstorm fraction “story problems” using the school’s energy data.They suggested using fractions to find out how much of yesterday’s solar energy was used up by the school, to compare one hour’s solar energy to the whole day, and to show how much of the school’s energy use was from lighting. Their numerators and denominators could come from the dashboard.“Everywhere you walk through this building, you can learn from it,” said Discovery’s principal, Erin Russo. There’s a large-screen energy dashboard by the school’s main entrance, and the building’s mechanical systems, including the geothermal pumps and the solar inverters that change direct current to alternating current, are prominently displayed behind large glass windows in the hallway.Learning about the behavior of light, Discovery’s fifth graders have visited the schools’ rooftop solar lab (a handful of adjustable panels that are metered separately) to see how angling the panels changes their power production.

Bridges’ students also looked for patterns of electricity use and tried to deduce why it was so much heavier on Saturdays than Sundays or why it spiked at 5 AM. “I didn’t give them energy-dashboard tests, because that’s not what we’re after,” said Bridges. “My goal as a teacher is to grow good critical thinkers, and I think the energy dashboard opens their eyes to something most people don’t think too much about.”

Still, Discovery’s teachers do need to cover the Virginia state learning standards, and matching these standards with dashboard lessons can be tricky. At one point, third graders were set to learn graphing with the school’s daily energy tally, but the plan was scrapped because the dashboard gives that data in bar graphs. Virginia’s third-grade standards call for using line graphs to track change over time.

Discovery’s math coach, Angela Torpy, and technology coach, Keith Reeves, help teachers weave the building’s data into standards-based lessons. Students learn the statistical measures of mean, median, and mode using the school’s energy consumption numbers, or demonstrate transparency, translucency, and opacity by covering solar panels with different materials and predicting the energy production.

Besides aligning with state standards, Discovery teachers must also contend with the dashboard’s occasional technical glitches—it tends to conk out due to server strain if too many kids are working on it. So teachers usually have students team up or rotate so one group hops on the dashboard while the rest of the class works on other tasks. Or they simply distribute screen grabs of dashboard data.

Still, according to Torpy, the upside of students learning from their own building outweighs these challenges. “You can see their level of excitement when they bring up the energy dashboard, and they’re making their own word problems with real data about their own school,” Torpy said of the students. “It’s empowering to them.”

The authenticity of these lessons is reinforced by a schoolwide focus on sustainability. In lieu of a school council, Discovery has an Eco-Action club whose members do annual audits of the school’s energy use, trash, food waste, water consumption, and other metrics. They did the school energy audit early in the school year, explained a fifth-grade Eco-Action member named Charlie Dantzker. “Basically, we walked into every classroom, counted the lights, checked to see what was plugged in, and looked for vampires,” Dantzker said. A vampire, he explained, is a device that draws power even when it’s turned off but still plugged into the wall.

But the students didn’t find a lot of waste in the audit: Discovery is already ultra-energy efficient. The school’s “energy use index,” a measure of power use per square foot, is about a third of the average for district elementary schools. The district plans to build on that success.

ARLINGTON IS A fast-growing district, and Discovery Elementary opened in 2015 as part of an ongoing school-building program (it shares a campus with a middle school with a trailer park to accommodate its overflowing student population). Below the schools’ shared athletic fields are geothermal wells that use a groundwater loop to provide cooling in summer and heat in winter.

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