Wasuma’s Solar Suitcases bring light to children in developing countries

These suitcases hold something more important than clothes, shoes and toiletries.

It’s called a solar suitcase, a portable solar system housed in a suitcase. Through a project that included the construction of a “solar suitcase,” eighth grade students at Wasuma Elementary School learned about electricity and solar power.

“The suitcase they constructed will be taken to Africa in the spring to help give light to children there,” said Kris Barnes, Bass Lake School District instructional technology coordinator. “They hold a key to the future for the children in developing countries who receive them.”

“Students build solar suitcases, 12-volt DC stand-alone solar systems capable of lighting a classroom and charging phones, laptops, and other small electronic devices,” the We Share Solar website explains.

“There is a great disparity between the rich and the poor and (educational opportunities) for boys and girls,” in many parts of the world, Barnes said. She used the example of a school for the deaf in Africa having no lights, thereby disrupting the educational opportunities for those students who rely on sign language for communication.

“Children go into the cities, especially airports and gas stations, to have light to study all night long to try to pass the exams that will allow them to continue their educations,” Barnes said. The “solar suitcases” allow children to study closer to home, a much safer environment than that found in the cities.

The “solar suitcase” project was obtained through the We Share Solar program, the educational partner of the non-profit We Care Solar program sponsored by PG&E. A grant allowed Barnes and Wasuma math teacher Nadine Wright to receive training that would allow them to guide students in building a “solar suitcase.”

We Care Solar provides students an opportunity to link science, technology, engineering and math in a way that addresses real time needs in developing countries.

“The We Share Solar program was started by an obstetrician/gynecologist that traveled to Africa to study why so many women and children were dying in childbirth,” said Barnes. “She discovered that many of the deaths were related to not having electricity. She came home and described to her engineer husband the problem and they created a portable solar system to help with the problem.

“The program has now expanded to bring light to schools to help even out the education system and help low income children have access to light to study for the exams that will allow them to continue their education. They believe in investing in the future by educating our children through STEM projects and real life situations, showing the students that they can make a difference.”

Student Perspective

Following completion of this year’s project, several of the students shared what they felt were the key learning outcomes for each of them.

The students worked cooperatively in groups following the directions provided with the project kits. They used a multimeter to test for the continuity of electrical flow and short circuits and to measure the output of the solar panel and to test the electrical load.

“I got closer with the group I was working with,” said Riley Schiaqua.

“The instructions were simple but we definitely needed teammates,” Luke Jennings said.

“We learned how a charge controller works and how to read it,” said Ryan Anderson.

“One simple mistake can make it (the solar panel) not work.” “If the battery is below 50 percent, the battery can be damaged,” Kalera Carroll-Hood explained.

“Kids with no knowledge (of solar panels) could use the detailed pictures and captions,” Jennings said. “Checking the kit took longer than building it.”

“We learned how solar panels worked,” said Linus Buchanan.

But it was not just scientific knowledge the students gained from the project. “It felt empowering when I flipped the light switch and the light bulb went on,” said Schiaqua. “We don’t see how privileged we are. We get to help people in need (with the project).”

Jennings agreed. “It was not just a knowledge thing. It was emotional also. We learned more than the science behind it and how it works.”

The students also included letters and postcards with pictures of Yosemite hoping that the students in the classroom on the receiving end would respond.

Fundraising for Next Year

Students and teachers agree that the “solar suitcase” project is a valuable learning opportunity they want to see continued next year and expanded to include eighth graders at Oak Creek Intermediate.

Each international suitcase costs $2,000 so the goal is to raise at least $4,000 so that students at the two schools will be able to participate. “If we raise more than that, we will buy more solar suitcases or build up the funds for the next year’s 8th graders,” said Barnes. “In other words, we can build more than one if we have the funds.”

For more information about the program go to www.wecaresolar.org or email Barnes at kbarnes@basslakesd.org. An account has also been set up by the school district and donations in the form of a check may be made out to Bass Lake Joint Union School District.