Thursday, August 31, 2017

Sun and the Solar Eclipse Study: Solar Power

For the month before the solar eclipse, the kids and I completed an intensive science unit on the sun and the solar eclipse, and it was awesome! Even though I LOVED astronomy as a kid, I'd been having trouble interesting the kids in the study (they are very much attached to the life sciences...), but this event turned out to be the perfect incentive to interest them, and they picked up a lot more than we'd started out intending to.

We used the NASA Eclipse Activity Guide as a spine--I used their main science activity and instructor's information for each lesson, but I added readings from library books, videos from YouTube, and arts and crafts activities for Syd. I had to buy a few special supplies, such as our first spectroscope and a digital outdoor thermometer, but most of the required materials were readily available.

We completed most of the units in the order suggested by the Eclipse Activity Guide, or at least we intended to... the sun has its own agenda, so it was actually a Saturday when we did some of this particular unit on Solar Power; it had been overcast for most of the week, so when the sun rose bright and shining that day, I was not going to waste its power!

The kids and I read and discussed part of this non-fiction children's book on solar power, then watched this TED-Ed video that shows how solar panels work, and Bill Nye's simpler explanation of the same subject. We've never lived in a house that got enough sun to be worth putting solar panels on it, so I'm always impressed to see solar panels in action. And after watching the TED-Ed video, I now actually understand how they work!

The activity that goes with this lesson in the NASA Eclipse Activity Guide is making and using a solar oven. The kids actually did this for a couple of days, re-engineering their first efforts when they didn't get great results with their first solar ovens. The basic model that the activity guide instructs them to build is a not incredibly efficient compilation of pizza box, aluminum foil, and plastic wrap:

These didn't really heat up the quesadillas and s'mores well, so the next day the kids reworked them with some stash mirrors (managing to break fully half of them, so I guess that's some more junk out of my storage space!). The second versions worked a little better, but if I had this unit to do again, I'd take the time to pull up some hardcore solar oven plans, get out the woodworking tools, and make a "real" solar oven with the kids, one that we could use over and over again to ACTUALLY cook our food...

Oh, well. I'm sure the subject will come up again some other time!

To make this study more suitable for Will, I added selections from Khan Academy to her requirements, wherever they applied. For this solar power unit, she also completed the Energy lab, which covers solar power and other energy sources, with an emphasis on sustainability.

To make the study more suitable for Syd, I added hands-on activities to her requirements, although they were tempting enough that Will often joined in. And when we made sun prints for this unit, the whole family joined in!

We are absolutely going to put building blocks on sun print paper again for math one day--I can't believe that I didn't get a good photo of the finished print, but the dark print where the bottom of the block sat, plus the lighter print made from its shadow, formed a beautiful and realistic-looking cube on the sun print paper. It was astonishing.

If we'd completed this study over a longer period of time, it would have been interesting to try to arrange a field trip to a solar park, or a lecture from a member of one of our local non-profits that try to encourage people to use solar power. We could have made a more elaborate solar oven, and experimented with sun printing onto fabric. The kids could have measured our house's energy expenditure, and done some problem-solving to reduce our usage. I could have bought them some solar panel kits and let them make themselves some solar-powered toys and gizmos.

But for our brief look, we now know about solar power, solar panels, and some uses for solar energy. And now I know how a solar panel works!

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