By Balazs Dibuz, Director of Teaching and Learning and Sylvia Glassco, Head Teacher, 5th / 6th Grade Mathematics

Just in time for longer nights and shorter days, and the onset of sunlight deprivation that will last more than six months as we stumble through another cold Chicago winter, the solar panels our 5th and 6th graders acquired through a grant have arrived and been installed on the small roof over the “old entrance.” Hurrah! And, no, I am not being ironic; it really is a good thing that the panels arrived when they did. While they do produce 8KW of output under optimal conditions, which is about 2% of the school’s overall electricity usage, the Chicago winter, when conditions are far from optimal, is a perfectly acceptable setting for this teaching tool. Students will be able to monitor the variations in energy produced by the panels as we begin to replace some of the school’s dirty energy with renewable.

solar panels on roof

We have solar panels because our 5th and 6th graders, as part of their “Climate Change Model Summit” last year, proposed an increased investment in alternative energy as one way to tackle the climate change-causing effects of greenhouse gas (carbon, methane, etc.) emissions, and we wrote a Curriculum Connection article about it, and Jonathan Pereira, a parent of two younger students at Ancona, together with an organization called Earth, Wind, & Solar Energy, helped us apply for a grant through the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, and Fred, our maintenance manager, and Reggie, our Director of Finance and Operations, prepared the building to make the install possible. That is, we have solar panels because we worked as a community to get them.

Now that the panels are installed, the learning can continue. Some of the first lessons related to the panels will have to do with realities and limitations, as the panels could not be installed in the location our students’ analysis determined would be optimal for the collection of solar energy. The challenge of connecting to the existing electrical system, and of finding a structurally suitable location, were unanticipated factors that made this process true experiential, or project-based learning; dealing with real-world challenges only increases the learning potential involved in the project. Our students, excited to see tangible results of their efforts, will now track the energy production of the solar panels. With careful attention to seasonal and weather-related variation, students will examine the physical processes of energy conversion (from solar to electrical energy).

But our students won’t stop there. They are eager to explore ways to increase the size and scope of Ancona’s solar panel array, as well as other uses of alternative energy, and to improve the overall efficiency of Ancona’s energy consumption. Last year’s Climate Change unit was a catalyst that served to bring together our students’ prior knowledge and environmental questions with our collective community desire to identify and address real-world problems. Students hope that this learning experience will be just the beginning, a project that will continue to grow with them and inspire future “generations” of scientist at Ancona.