November 24, 2021

Solar Panels Provide Clean Energy Lesson On Riverside Fourth Graders’ Field Trip

ELECTRICITY FROM THE SUN: Solar panel installers from Exact Solar prepare to create a spark and light a candle from the sun’s energy, as Riverside School fourth graders and their teachers look on during a field trip where the students learned about solar panels, clean energy, and climate change. (Photo courtesy of Sustainable Princeton)

By Donald Gilpin

Riverside School fourth grade teacher Terry McGovern and local residents Ted and Jess Deutsch teamed up with solar panel installers from Exact Solar last Friday to provide McGovern’s 17 students with an encounter with a genuine global challenge and a learning experience they won’t soon forget.

“We were getting solar panels installed, and it was a great opportunity to educate the kids,” said Ted Deutsch, whose two children went to Riverside and who lives just across a field from the school. 

Deutsch contacted Riverside Principal Ebony Lattimer, who put him in touch with McGovern, who did not hesitate.  “Clean energy is of interest to children,” said McGovern. “They were eager to listen to something that is a real world issue. This was a hands-on experience. They learned about electricity and how solar panels work.”

The excitement of a field trip after 20 months of pandemic was also a significant attraction.  As one fourth grader noted, “Mr. McGovern, it’s been a long time since we’ve been on a field trip.” 

After walking across the field —no bus necessary — the students listened to a presentation by Michael Bloom, one of the Exact Solar installers.  There were two workers on the roof installing panels, and there were solar panels on the ground that the kids could actually touch.    

The students watched a presentation by the installers highlighted by wires from the solar panels creating sparks and powering lightbulbs. They also noted the impact of shade on these effects. In fact, the first attempt to create a spark didn’t work until the students realized that they were blocking the sun by standing in front of the panels. They moved and the spark was created.

There were many questions ranging from “How does a panel make electricity?” to “What happens at night?” Students discussed different energy sources, making connections with what they knew about climate change and learning how solar panels can provide an efficient source of energy and minimize costs.

“I was impressed with the kids’ remarks and their knowledge of solar energy,” said McGovern, “but I wasn’t surprised. They have these conversations and hear about this at home. They had prior knowledge about how to minimize their carbon footprint.”

“It was fun,” he added. “The kids were fascinated. They were directly involved. It was a lesson which applied directly to their lives.”

Deutsch was pleased to see the students’ level of engagement with the presentation and the whole experience. “Clean energy — I’m excited about this topic, and I like to get kids excited,” he said. “It’s a planetary challenge. We need big policy changes, but as individuals we have to do our part to address the climate change challenge. We need millions of individuals to lower their carbon footprints.”

Deutsch pointed out that the solar panels would reduce their energy use by about 80 percent, so that, along with federal and state tax credits, the cost of installation would pay for itself in a few years. Most people can get solar panels affordably, if their homes have access to enough sunlight, he said. The unfortunate loss of trees to the emerald ash borer recently put the Deutsch’s roofline in a better position for solar panels. In his ongoing quest for clean energy, Deutsch is looking forward to seeing his electric vehicles actually powered by the sun.

Sustainable Princeton Program Manager Jenny Ludmer, who also attended Friday’s presentation, applauded the valuable learning experience. “We were thrilled with all the effort that allowed these children to gain firsthand experience with solar, and hope other homeowners are inspired to follow suit,” she said. “Rooftop solar isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly one great way to support the goals of the Climate Action Plan and save a little money on your utility bills.”

McGovern reflected on the lives that his students might be living in a world of cleaner energy in the future. “All these 9- and 10-year-olds will probably have homes, cars, and other things in the future that run entirely on solar energy,” he said. “These kids have developed a curiosity to learn more.”