Sun fun

Solar energy education program for kids

Seventh graders in the Swope Middle School Gifted and Talented Magnet Program gather around Catherine Leon and Black Rock Solar’s mobile solar array.

Seventh graders in the Swope Middle School Gifted and Talented Magnet Program gather around Catherine Leon and Black Rock Solar’s mobile solar array.

Photo/Sage Leehey

To learn more or schedule a field trip with or visit from Black Rock Solar, email or visit

Black Rock Solar’s education program focuses on teaching kids—kindergarten through 12th grade—about solar photovoltaic cells, electricity, renewable vs. nonrenewable energy, and fossil fuels in a hands-on and accessible way.

They use two methods for this. Either Black Rock Solar comes to the school with its mobile solar array or solar trailer, or they bus the kids out to one of 75 pre-existing solar arrays they’ve built for non-profits, schools and tribes in the area free of charge to the school.

Black Rock Solar has been doing this since 2010, and its education program manager Catherine Leon has been around since last year. Leon sat down and calculated the number of kids that have been involved in either a class visit or field trip since the school year began in the fall of 2013 and said they’ve served more than 1,500 students this year alone.

“They’re the ones who are going to promote and advocate for renewable energy in the future, so that’s why we like to expose them to solar technology early,” Leon said.

Leon was at Swope Middle School all morning on May 15 with groups of students for this program.

“What we do is we talk about what we need to make electricity first because it’s all about electricity,” Leon said. “Then we talk about how we can use the energy from the sun to make electricity, and then we talk about fossil fuels and the impacts they have on the environment compared to clean renewable energy like solar energy.”

She has students act out the photons hitting the photovoltaic cells and how the energy travels in the system to help them understand how solar energy works. The kids were laughing the whole time, despite the heat. Leon uses activities like this one throughout her lessons to keep the kids engaged, but she changes it a bit depending on the ages of the children involved.

After that, students pair up and are given small solar panels, wires and something to power—a small light or buzzer was common. They then have to make the circuit.

“They get to touch it and see how cool it is and that they don’t need batteries or to burn gasoline,” Leon said. “They get creative, and they start joining forces. It just gives the kids a chance to explore and experiment. … I don’t tell them how to make the connections, so they have to figure it out on their own. They get to troubleshoot problems, and they have ah-ha light bulb moments on their own, which is great.”

Macy Brown, a seventh grader at Swope, participated in the program along with her science class in the Gifted and Talented Magnet program. She also liked this activity the best because she actually got to use solar energy herself and “learned a lot more [from the circuit-building activity] than just reading it out of a book.”

Christina Thee, Brown’s science teacher in the Gifted and Talented Magnet program at Swope, reached out to Black Rock Solar for this program, and other teachers can do the same to plan a field trip or visit from the non-profit. Thee likes this program because of the hands-on experience it brings her students.

“They not only have the solar panel and the example of how they use the solar panel and how they store energy, they also have hands-on little kits that the kids can work on and manipulate and get their own devices working,” Thee said.