Recently, a reader asked for ideas on teaching about solar-powered lights. She wrote:
I would like to find an activity that utilizes the solar panels from garden solar lights. I know that I could probably find many broken solar lights and was wondering if anyone has any ideas? Electricity and solar panels are not my best areas. Thanks, Denise, 8th-grade science teacher.
Solar power is becoming increasingly popular as more people realize its environmental advantages. It produces no climate-changing gases and it is relatively cheap. A careful look around and you are likely to spot devices running on solar power, such as a highway alert signs or your neighbor’s landscape lights.
A study of solar panels or photovoltaic (PV) cells aligns well with the National Science Education Standards, which indicate middle-level students should acquire abilities of and understanding about scientific inquiry and technological design. The Physical Science standards suggest students gain knowledge of properties and changes in matter and transfer of energy.
The science of PV cells is more abstract than most middle school students are ready for, since it operates on principles of atomic particles’ properties and distribution. But the issue can be explored from the core concept of transfer of energy. That is, solar energy enters the “black box” of the PV cell and is converted into electric energy. Teachers can also set up a variety of circuits and allow students to “discover” which are most effective and hypothesize why. Lessons can be extended to discussions of the feasibility of solar-powered homes and factories and the pros and cons of converting from coal to solar energy. Those discussions would connect to the Science in Personal and Social Perspectives standards.
The following resources will provide teachers with background knowledge regarding PV cells. When teachers feel comfortable with the science, they can consider modifying the last resource, a comprehensive high school lab activity, for middle school use.
But, one more thing, Denise — If you have broken solar garden lights, you will most likely need to order the replacement parts from the manufacturer to get them to operate as needed.
Solar Landscape Lighting
How Do Photovoltaics Work?
Spotlight on Photovoltaic Cells
Investigating Earth Systems – Energy Investigation 6: Solar Energy
Lesson and Lab Activity with Photovoltaic Cells
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