Youth explore solar energy

Youth can explore solar energy at 4-H Renewable Energy Camp and through other 4-H science programs.

Our planet is solar powered. The sun has long provided energy for almost all living things on Earth. Through the process of photosynthesis, plants capture the sun's energy and convert it into chemical energy, the energy of food. Researchers and engineers are working on more efficient ways to convert solar energy directly into heat or electricity. There are two main solar energy systems currently being used: photovoltaic and thermal systems. Photovoltaic systems convert solar radiation into electricity using panels that generate an electrical current when light shines on them. Thermal systems are designed to capture and store the heat from the sun in active systems like solar water heaters or passive systems like greenhouses.

You can help youth explore solar energy by challenging them to build a solar car. Provide youth with a solar panel, a small motor, AA battery, two wires with alligator clips and a digital multi-meter along with some tape and a variety of “junk” (small boxes, straws, paper towel tubes, bottle caps, juice lids and other items that could be used to make a junk car). Use the wires to attach the solar panel to the motor and hold in a sunny location. You should be able to see the motor spin.

Next, challenge youth to build a car from the junk that is powered by the solar panel and motor. Allow plenty of time for modifications and redesigning. Remind youth that the worst thing that happens if their design fails is that they learn something. While you are beginning to build, you should set up a test area in the sunlight. When time is up, have everyone bring their junk car to the testing area and run them one at a time or as a race. Discuss with the youth and decide together how to test the cars. Allow time for youth to discuss which designs worked better and why.

More energy from the sun hits the Earth in one hour than humanity uses in an entire year. However, less than 1 percent of our energy needs were provided by solar energy in the United States in 2014. That is because generating electricity from solar energy is more expensive than generating energy using traditional fossil fuel generating systems. While solar energy is clean and renewable, the sun does not continually shine with the same intensity or direction each day. Solar radiation varies from day-to-day and season-to-season.

For more opportunities for youth to explore solar energy or other alternative energies, check out the 4-H Renewable Energy Camp held each July through Michigan State University Extension, or the modules “Racing with the Sun” and “Solar Oven” of the TechXite Discover Engineering curriculum, developed by 4-H and Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering.

Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program help to create a community excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). 4-H STEM programming seeks to increase science literacy, introducing youth to the experiential learning process that helps them to build problem-solving, critical-thinking and decision-making skills. Youth who participate in 4-H STEM content are better equipped with critical life skills necessary for future success. To learn more about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth in STEM literacy programs, read our 2015 Impact Report: “Building Science Literacy and Future STEM Professionals.”

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