In early 2009, I visited my alma mater middle school, Rachel Carson Middle School (RCMS) in Herndon, Virginia, to talk about a grant opportunity and a potential project idea. The grant was part of Dominion Power’s K-12 Partnership program. Dominion awards grants of up to $10,000 for K-12 education programs related to energy and the environment, and over $300,000 in K-12 grants are awarded every year; Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Fairfax County’s magnet school, had been awarded the grant a couple of years before. The idea was to use the grant to fund a solar power installation. I met with the lead science teacher at RCMS, Kirk Treakle, and the principal, August Fratalli. They were immediately sold on the idea. Treakle had done numerous environmental projects at the school already, and he was ready to take the idea and run with it.
By the end of the school year, Treakle had gotten a group of students to lead the initiative. The students wrote the grant and raised support at the school for the effort. I continued to check in from time to time to see how things were progressing, and about a year and a half later, the school had raised almost $40,000 for the project; and in November 2010, a 2.6-kilowatt solar demonstration system was installed on the school’s roof. In addition, the system came with data monitoring equipment, so students could monitor the energy production. The school held a “Flip the Switch” event to celebrate the installation, and the project was highlighted in local news publications. The project showed me that the value of solar technology was not always financial or even environmental. The educational and inspirational value far outweighed anything else.
After seeing how Treakle had used this initiative to engage his students, I started to wonder how to replicate it. Meanwhile, my sister had become a Teach For America corps member in New Orleans, and she began talking to me about poverty, the achievement gap, and other obstacles that schools in low-income communities were facing. A very passionate person, she talked at length about how hard it was to engage students and keep them interested in their education, and how Teach For America and other innovative organizations were finding ways to empower and educate students. Together, these stories and my experience at Rachel Carson Middle School became the impetus for the Three Birds Foundation.
Three Birds was started in 2011-2012 to engage and inspire disadvantaged students using renewable energy. In early 2012, we started talking to Title I and Alternative schools in the National Capital Region (the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland). We started the conversations with questions about what activities the schools were already doing related to STEM education, and we held brainstorming sessions with teachers on what the schools could do to integrate concepts of sustainability. Gardens and recycling initiatives were generally the first ideas to come up, but these were low-hanging fruit. We thought renewable energy demonstrations would be a great way to reach students, but the teachers were not as certain. They were unfamiliar with renewable energy and didn’t know how they would be able to use the technology.
Impatient person that I am, I started to wonder why it had been so easy to convince Rachel Carson Middle School. I soon realized that Rachel Carson Middle School had a lot of advantages that these schools did not. Treakle had been a champion of environmental programs for years, and while Rachel Carson Middle School was a relatively new middle-income school, the schools I was now approaching were low-income schools in much older buildings. Rachel Carson Middle School was also Rachel Carson Middle School, named after the famous conservationist. So how could we get schools without the same momentum, champions, money, or identity to use renewable energy as a learning tool? Short answer: by giving them momentum, champions, money, and identity.
Over the past two years, we’ve found dozens of new and well-established organizations around the country that are dealing with issues similar to those of Three Birds. SolSolution in Boston is working to make it financially attractive for schools and districts to go solar using power purchase agreements. The Bonneville Environmental Foundation and the Foundation for Environmental Education have completed hundreds of small installations (2-10 kW) over the past 10 years at schools in the Northwest and Midwest, respectively. The National Energy Education Development Project, KidWind, and the National Wildlife Federation Eco Schools programs have developed curricula and frameworks for every grade level.
There are also countless universities conducting research and outreach with renewable energy education. The University of Maryland MESA Lab, the University of Illinois Engineering Open House, and Virginia Tech’s STEM Education department have been developing various tools and programs specifically for renewable energy education. There are organizations like Make It Right Solar and the Community Power Network that are focusing on community installations. And the list goes on.
The solar schools and renewable energy education community is becoming more and more connected, and as our organizations grow closer, we align our visions for the future of the movement. The best example of this is The Solar Foundation’s new initiative to install solar PV systems in 20,000 schools by 2020, the Brian D. Robertson Memorial Solar Schools Fund (the “BDR Fund”). Named for the late solar entrepreneur Brian Robertson, the BDR Fund was created to introduce an entire generation of students to solar power, a goal that embodies Robertson’s belief that education is critical to developing a clean energy economy and strengthening our nation’s future. As the solar schools and renewable energy education communities rally behind the Solar Foundation and the BDR Fund, I think we will see that not only can renewable energy engage and inspire students, but it can also inspire a nation.