Tildenville Elementary makes solar panels for Ugandans

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  • | 11:01 a.m. December 25, 2014
  • West Orange Times & Observer
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Sharon Burnett, a teacher of fourth- and fifth-grade science at Tildenville Elementary, always encourages her students to think big, believe in their scientific abilities no matter the gender or aptitude, and explore the widest range of possibilities they can.

Part of that effort comes from Burnett introducing them to new possibilities, such as her After School Programs project to reinforce classroom learning, in which her students constructed three portable solar generators this semester under the oversight of six Valencia College engineering students and Deb Hall, an engineering professor from Valencia.

The portable generators, called solar suitcases, are complete, making Burnett’s students the youngest to complete such a project by years. After a quality inspection from We Care Solar, the Californian nonprofit that created solar suitcases for its We Share Solar program, the generators will be shipped to Katangala and Kabale in Uganda in February, where they will power orphanage schools without electricity.

“These kids actually did have a school, but they didn’t have electricity there at all,” Burnett said. “They might have a computer there, but they don’t have a way to charge it. People have phones there, but nowhere to charge them, so this solar suitcase actually ends up being a solar panel that they attach to the roof of this school, and they actually live there. They actually have lights that can go in it. They have all these attachments that can charge phones and anything that has batteries in it.”


Burnett hatched the plan to construct these solar suitcases in April, after seeing Hall’s when Hall would work with Burnett’s ASP students from time to time in the past three or four years.

“I teach electricity,” Burnett said. “We have electricity kits, and we takes batteries and put things together and learn circuitry and stuff like that. So I thought this would be a really neat opportunity for us to learn some alternative ways of electricity and get some high-tech stuff for kids to learn about.”

Burnett approached De’Anthony Shamar, director of ASP, with the idea and asked whether ASP could help.

“(ASP) guys got together and talked and said, ‘Why don’t we try three?’” Burnett said.

A 21st Century Service Learning Communities grant through the Department of Education helped ASP provide the $4,500 needed to build three suitcases, said Greg Snow, regional director of ASP.

Tildenville students worked in three teams, with eight to 10 students on each team and two Valencia students on each team, Burnett said.

“They have this plastic little suitcase, the solar panel, which is already together, and then just wires and little plastic bags of all kinds of leads and switches,” she said, “and they have to figure out how to put all these things together.”

Principal Agathe Alvarez was astounded as she saw the progress students made after each building session, which would be from about 3:30-5:30 every other Friday, from August to November.

“When they were watching the introductory video, it was literally an empty shell,” Alvarez said. “To watch that grow throughout the few months they’ve been working on it, to see the end result and to see them actually test it, and it’s working, the looks on their faces, the terminology they’re using, the excitement they felt — there is no comparison. That was true learning with a purpose. For them to use the knowledge they have to help others is truly what our program is about.”


There were two students within the building groups who did not have electricity, so they could empathize with the Ugandans, Alvarez said.

The students learned about Uganda and the children they were helping, which became a struggle for Burnett.

“I had a really hard time getting them to understand that these were children that were in orphanages because their parents had AIDS and died,” she said. “So I found this video online, because they started to do some research and thought these kids just get up every day, put a little uniform on and go to school, like a private school in Uganda. Well, it’s not like that. It’s really sad.”

In the video, an 8-year-old girl cared for her polio-stricken brother and sister, who were 6 and 7 and ostracized from their village, Burnett said.

“She’d walk miles to get water for them,” she said. “She would feed them. I showed this video to my kids, and they (cried). They started to learn that these kids had a really rough life. So they kind of understood this was really something special we could do for these kids, and there were people they could provide electricity for.”

The Tildenville students also sent letters to the recipients, which will be translated on site once they arrive, which is tough to guarantee.

“We’ve got to put it in bubble wrap, and it goes on bikes on roads that are not even made yet,” Burnett said. “It’s pretty incredible.”


Apart from the obvious engineering and scientific skills the children built, they learned many social and real-world skills, such as teamwork, leadership, taking turns, following directions, group focus, listening, problem-solving and compassion.

Burnett also used the opportunity to develop young students’ interests in STEM — especially girls, showing them they can do anything boys can — as well as show students lacking confidence their capabilities, she said.

“They see themselves doing something they never imagined they could do,” Burnett said. “The project-based learning is where they really experience learning hands-on and enjoy learning.”

Because the Valencia students were young enough to relate to the Tildenville students as role models, the Tildenville students could better see their opportunities in this area, Alvarez said.

“There needs to be more people going into engineering,” Snow said. “We’ve done that engineering with fourth- and fifth-graders and introduced them to people in their 20s who are taking that path.”

A shortage of engineers has made STEM an important path, with firms possibly lacking the manpower to complete their contracts, he said. 

“It’s a big push to take our citizens in the school system and tell them, ‘This is something you can do,’” Snow said. “In the past, you just hoped someone was smart enough and bright enough that they thought they could do it. Now it’s our role to teach them they are smart enough to do this, that science is a great path to take and that engineers are needed. They’ve taken these students and built all those social skills and integrated them with math and science and engineering to help push them in a direction that can make them very successful.”

That encouragement at Tildenville is the most exciting part for Snow.

“They’re teaching kids they can come out of here and be engineers,” he said. “It’s not a school where kids have a lot of money. It’s a school a lot of people overlook, but it’s an awesome school where great things are happening.”

Contact Zak Kerr at [email protected].


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