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Students Explore Real-World Energy Projects

By Diane Painter
April 19, 2022
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Why should kids spend time learning about renewable energy in school, during after-school STEM clubs or independently studying at home?

One reason is to address children's natural curiosities about how and why things happen: Why does the sun make us hot? What makes a hurricane and a tornado? Why should we turn off the lights when leaving a room?

Another reason for delving into these topics is that our planet's survival is in the hands of our present and future generations. Creating renewable energy sources to replace coal, oil and gas is one way to address climate change.

Renewable energy can be embedded into different units of study or used as a theme that drives student learning, especially if an essential question asks, How can renewable energy benefit the environment?

In a physics class, a teacher can relate renewable energy to the rotational kinetics of a wind turbine. Chemistry students can address renewable energy when exploring the electrochemical reactions within a hydrogen fuel cell. An earth science teacher may ask students to consider the impact on global climate when studying the production and uses of ethanol fuel. Finally, economic students could research the costs and benefits over time when homes and businesses use solar energy.

KindWind encourage students to explore green energy

Community makerspaces that offer hands-on, student-driven opportunities for learning may also teach students about renewable energies. As a member of Makersmiths, a nonprofit community makerspace in Loudoun County, Virginia, I coach several KidWind solar and wind project middle school teams.

KidWind initiatives engage students in exploring clean energy science through engineering activities. Students learn about wind energy, how wind turbines operate, and how they produce electricity when completing wind turbine projects. Students design, create and test out wind turbine projects to determine the amount of energy their turbines produce.

Solar-project students learn how solar cells turn light from the sun into electricity. They design and create structures that use solar panels to produce electricity used to operate something such as turning on lights, operating a fan, or sounding a buzzer. 

This year, Makersmiths coached three middle school Renewable Energy Teams. Our eighth grade solar team created a solar smart house. The team used solar panels to keep a battery charged that operates an Arduino Pro Mini that uses a heat-humidity sensor to automatically operate a fan and a light sensor to turn on the house's ceiling lights when it gets dark.

When constructing their house, the team used repurposed materials. They collected plastic shopping bags and PET plastic sheets leftover from when Makersmiths created face shields for PPE production during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.

They cut up the bags, melted them in an oven to form clay-like clumps of plastic, flattened them, and once they cooled and hardened, cut them into bricks to create the foundation for the house. Then, using a gingerbread mold to make plaster of Paris castings of the house's roof and walls, the team heated the PET plastic sheets, the clay castings and a vacuum former to shape the plastic into transparent walls and roof pieces. This process involved team members researching ways to repurpose materials and learning how a vacuum former operates in the manufacturing process.

Need PBL ideas? Discover real-world projects for real-world classrooms. Read ISTE's book Reinventing Project-Based Learning.

Teens learn about wind turbines using real tools of the trade

Our two middle school wind turbine teams focused on wind energy and how wind turbines produce electricity. Their vocabulary and science understandings expanded as they learned about kinetic energy vs. mechanical energy; horizontal and vertical axis turbines; parts of a wind turbine, such as the tower, the nacelle that holds rotor blades, a rotor hub, gearbox, shaft, and the generator. They learned to use an anemometer to determine wind speed. 

Team members honed collaborative and fine motor skills when designing and creating wind turbine blades from various recycled materials (cardboard, foam board and everyday items such as egg cartons). Team members learned safe ways to use exacto knives to cut materials, used rulers to determine measurements as inches, centimeters and millimeters, and when mounting their blades onto the turbine's hub, determined the pitch of their blades using a protractor.

When testing their turbines using a box fan to produce wind, participants used multimeters to determine the voltage and amperage their 3- to 4-foot high turbines produced. When Makersmiths built us a 4-cubic wind tunnel that uses four box fans, we used a Vernier Go-Direct Sensor and free graphical analysis software to determine the power output of the wind turbines.

Our students learned how to read voltage (V), amperage (mA) and power output (mW) shown on the graphs the software produced. Team members used the information to change a variable such as the pitch of their blades or the number of blades on a hub, or they re-designed their blades using different shapes and materials and then constructed new sets of blades.

After each wind turbine and solar project workshop session ended, team members wrote down or orally dictated what they learned, what they tried that was different, and how they used their problem-solving and collaborative skills when working with team members. In addition, we systematically documented the team's research, development and testing initiatives by entering these reflections into team journals.

Teams earn recognition at engineering competitions

In March 2022, our wind and solar teams competed in Virginia's Western Region Renewable Challenges at James Madison University. Teams tested their turbines in the competition wind tunnels with the power output data recorded on profile sheets.

The wind and solar teams participated in instant challenges that required them to work collaboratively to look at data presented to them to determine the best spot to place wind farms in the United States. When the teams met with judges (energy industry professionals and educators), they shared their documentation (journals and power output data). The teams explained their development and testing processes when completing their projects. The outcome of the challenges was remarkable.

One wind turbine team tied for first place and the other wind team won second place in the middle school wind division.

The Makersmiths’ solar team won first place in the middle school solar division and went on to nationals where they were named KidWind Virtual National Champion. 

They scored the highest of all other teams in the nation participating in the virtual competition! Way to go Cameron Clarke, Max and Nick Burrus and Ayden Young! (All four boys are from the Purcellville, Viginia area.)

They scored the highest of all teams throughout the country participating in the virtual competition!  Way to go Cameron Clarke, Max and Nick Burrus and Ayden Young! (all four boys are from Purcellville, VA area)

Two weeks after the KidWind Challenges, the teams demonstrated their projects at Loudoun County Public School's Student Maker Showcase. When watching our team members share their wind and solar projects with teachers, parents, students and the public, the participants appeared confident and excited about what they experienced in our KidWind sessions. Several teachers and one school system administrator stated that it is evident that project-based learning experiences must be made more available to students.

More than just learning science and math content and applying that content to creating solar and wind projects, our KidWind members learned to work together, problem-solve and communicate their ideas, skills that are embedded in the ISTE Standards. Their passion for learning was also evident. For example, we had several heartwarming conversations with team members.

One wind turbine participant asked, "When do we start again?" He was already thinking about the next KidWind project.

One of the solar team members also asked if we could continue to meet to improve the solar project. She was thinking about motorizing the solar panel platform using an Arduino to tilt and rotate the panels to make them follow the sun. Then another boy said, "I like Saturdays!" When asked why, he grinned and replied, "Because I get to come to KidWind!"

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Diane Painter, Ph.D. is a retired elementary and special education teacher. She is a part-time teacher-educator at Shenandoah University, and a member of ISTE and her state affiliate, VSTE. She volunteers as a STEM educator at Makersmith in Loudoun County, Virginia. Contact her at