Empowering Schools Worldwide With Solar Suitcases

Skyline students demonstrate the capabilities of the solar suitcases that they constructed as part of a 3-week course through Lawrence Hall of Science and a Berkeley nonprofit organization. (Johanna Varner/KQED Science)

Packed with wires and electronics, the blue suitcases might not exactly breeze through airport security. But they're most welcome where they're going.

They’re actually portable solar units used to power off-the-grid schools and hospitals in the developing world. And by assembling the suitcases themselves, Bay Area high school students are also learning about engineering and social justice issues.

“When you give kids something real to do, they really like it,” says Hal Aronson, director of technology at We Care Solar, a local nonprofit that designs and builds “solar suitcases,” which are sent all over the world. “Like any other human being, they just want to be helpful, but they often don’t know how.”

Serving Two Communities at Once

Since its inception in 2009, We Care Solar has brought thousands of solar suitcases to places like Nepal, Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Most of these units are used to power medical clinics in regions that lack electricity.

We Care Solar co-founders Hal Aronson and Laura Satchel hold the panels for a solar suitcase prototype that was sent to Africa to power medical clinics.
We Care Solar co-founders Hal Aronson and Laura Stachel hold the panels for a solar suitcase prototype that was sent to Africa to power medical clinics. (We Care Solar)

But when they saw how effective the portable generators were, many schools and orphanages also started to request solar suitcases. Aronson saw an opportunity to serve two communities at the same time.

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He decided to have American high school students build the suitcases. In so doing, they would learn about engineering, solar power and energy poverty. Then, these student-assembled suitcases would be sent to Africa to provide a renewable power and light for orphanages and schools.

A New Partnership in the Bay Area

Aronson’s educational program, the similarly named We Share Solar, has been active for several years. But this month, he agreed to try something more than just teaching the students to assemble the units.

Researchers and educators from the Lawrence Hall of Science integrated the suitcase assembly into a three-week course for students in Oakland who might otherwise be at risk of dropping out of school. During this focused program, students received additional training in the engineering and design process. And additional partners like the East Bay College Fund provided career counseling.

Organizers hoped that the students would gain a real-world appreciation for what they were learning in school, which would motivate them to pursue advanced studies, especially in science and engineering fields.

In early July, more than 20 students from the Oakland’s Skyline High School participated in the integrated three-week solar academy for the first time.

As a capstone experience, the students explained their work to an audience of about 40 educators, engineers, and community members. Each group also showed off its completed, functional solar suitcases, ready to be sent to orphanages in Uganda.

Inspiring STEM Careers

“The kids have built suitcases that are actually going to go to places where they are going to make a big difference in peoples’ lives,” says Ardice Hartry, Deputy Director of the Research Group at Lawrence Hall of Science and helped design the course. “That’s my favorite part of all this.”

The students see a potential payoff for themselves as well.

Skyline High School student Daijonne explains the capabilities of the solar suitcase that her group constructed.
Skyline High School student Daijonne Cosby explains the capabilities of the solar suitcase that her group constructed. (Johanna Varner/KQED Science)

“It really did open up another option for me that I wasn’t aware of,” says Eunice Han, a rising junior who participated in the course.

Skyline High School student Eunice Han presents a systems analysis of energy needs for the Ugandan communities that will receive the solar suitcases. She and many other students are considering careers in engineering as a result of their experience.
Skyline High School student Eunice Han presents a systems analysis of energy needs for the Ugandan communities that will receive the solar suitcases. She and many other students are considering careers in engineering as a result of their experience. (Johanna Varner/KQED Science)

“It was a very unique, eye-opening experience,” agrees Samuel Wild, another high school student. “Building the suitcases was really cool. I didn’t know much about that before. Of course, I thought I did, but I didn’t.”

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On the sidelines, Aronson watched the student presentations with delight. “In a moment like this, I can actually see that they’re gaining knowledge and are capable of sharing it. And they put some pride in their workmanship,” he said. “That’s exciting.”

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