January 27, 1996 in Idaho

Students Shedding Light On Solar Energy

Marianne Love Correspondent
 

During this North Idaho gray season, it’s hard to believe that anyone in the Panhandle could conceive of using sunshine to capture energy.

But people have.

Some even make their livelihood through solar energy. Solar panels can be spotted on buildings all over North Idaho. And they work.

Inspired by the local Solutions Group - a community think tank - two Sandpoint High School classes are taking the solar trend a step further. They’re developing a solar-powered/solar-measuring calculator.

“You could use it for day-to-day math problems,” SHS senior Jason Fincher explained. “It will also have a component that measures how much solar energy is available in any given area.”

The calculator may even provide specifics on what’s needed to convert a house or even a guitar to solar energy. “You could hit a button and it would list out all the things you need for your car or guitar, such as batteries and solar panels,” he said.

Fincher is one of 40-plus students who walked into their applied biochemistry and math classes last September and found out they’d be scrapping the usual routine. Instead, under guidance from multimedia consultant and idea man Tim Nowell-Smith, they began collaborating on research and development of the calculator.

In the process, the students have learned a variety of skills applicable to future vocations. Dividing into eight groups with different responsibilities, they’ve met twice weekly and have listened to guest lectures on letter writing, electricity and solar panel use.

Fincher has also taught several students how to use the Internet in an effort to gather more information.

A letter-writing project sent word of the project to countries around the world.

“We’re attempting to set up a worldwide network so people will know what we’re doing,” Fincher explained. Other students, like Amber Gildersleeve, Kellie Swenson and Erin Brady, have learned to use scanners and digital cameras while designing a poster symbolizing their “company,” known as Students Understanding Nature.

SUN evolved from a $12,000 General Telephone grant, earned by science teacher Rich Nathanson and math instructor Tom Albertson. The teachers learned in April that their proposal for the calculator project was one of 60 nationwide Good Ideas for Teachers grants.

Albertson and Nathanson then toured Boston’s GTE research facilities and Tufts University last June and met with legislators in Washington, D.C.

Each also received $2,500 from the grant to prepare for this year’s project.

Nathanson visited Colorado’s National Renewable Energy Lab, while Albertson attended Sustaining Seattle, a four-day environmental gathering.

With Nowell-Smith’s help, teachers and students have gotten the calculator project moving. Class members have dissected as many as two dozen solar-powered calculators to see how they work.

Another group soldered and repaired solar panels.

Others have been creating a design for the prototype. Fincher says the first model will be completed before the school year ends.

“We don’t really want to make money on it,” he said. “Hopefully, manufacturers will pick it up. We’re more interested in exposing solar energy to more people than making money.”

Besides creating the calculator, students and teachers have formed a broader vision. “We have a building planned for SUN’s headquarters,” Fincher said. “The eventual goal is that it can be a center where people can learn about different aspects of solar energy.”


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