Environmental Ed Shines at 2011 Solar Decathlon

More than 4,000 public school children descended on the Solar Village in Washington, D.C. during “Education Days” of the 2011 Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, a biannual competition that challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive.

Vernon Myers, center, and his students tour Appalachian State's solar powered home.

Vernon Myers, II, who teaches seventh grade math and science in Prince Georges County, Maryland, brought his students with a grant from the National Education Association (NEA) that helped pay for bus transportation.  NEA provided $15,000 in grants to help school children from Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania travel to the Solar Decathlon to learn about solar energy and participate in hands-on activities in environmental education as part of “Education Days.”

“We’re helping to shape world class leaders at our school, and part of their future will be reducing our dependence on oil, finding alternative energy sources, and creating a cleaner environment for a new generation,” Myers says. “That’s why we were so excited to bring our students here. They’re asking lots of questions, and learning from the teams of college students how to really think outside the box.”

Vernon says events like the Solar Decathlon are particularly important for students whose vision might be limited by the community in which they live. “These kids aren’t often exposed to the wide variety of opportunities that are out there,” he says. “Here, they see that maybe they could be a scientist, an engineer, an architect, or a designer, and they see all the directions they could take their career.”

Students in the "Education Days" tent answer environmental trivia questions.

Richard King is Director of the Solar Decathlon. He’s been with the U.S. Department of Energy since 1986 and came up with the idea of the Solar Decathlon in 2000. He says the event is all about education, innovation and workforce development.

It educates college students who are becoming our environmental leaders, it educates the public about solar energy, and it educates professionals like  engineers, architects, and builders who find new innovations for their industry – and also a crop of high quality future employees among the college teams. Sponsors have sent their Human Resources departments to the Solar Village to recruit the young innovators.

“But it’s also about educating the middle school students who come for Education Days,” King says. “They’re our future. We’re depending on them. That’s why NEA is such a valuable partner to the Solar Decathlon. They help us bring students here for Education Days, they help sponsor the Education Tent, and they helped us with the middle and high school curriculum.”

King says bringing middle school students to the Solar Decathlon for education days is important because seventh and eighth graders are just beginning to think about colleges and career paths. He wants to spark their imaginations at this stage in their development and get them excited about the science, technology, engineering and green design building fields.

The Solar Decathlon has sparked the imagination of Stephen James, a seventh grader in Vernon Myers class at Imagine Lincoln PCS in Temple Hills, Maryland. During a tour of the Appalachian State University’s solar house, he asked pointed questions about how the solar panels use electrons for electricity and heat, and said that his day at the Solar Village had inspired him to think about a future career in solar energy.

“I’d like to maybe be a solar engineer or scientist,” he says. “I’d like to expand solar energy to more places around the country. It’s important because it helps the Earth.”