The Harmony School’s garden area has a new addition — a pinwheel-shaped installation of solar panels. Thanks to a grant secured by teacher Emily Sprowls, the students were able to design Bloomington’s first solar sculpture and help it get erected.
The energy generated from the panels is minimal — just enough to run lights and heater cables in the school’s greenhouse — but energy self-sufficiency was never the point of the project.
The solar sculpture was the brainchild of Emily Sprowls, Harmony’s high school science teacher. She began working on the idea with students in her Energy Class in 2011. Then last summer she secured a $10,000 grant (pdf) through the Audubon Society funded by Toyota. With additional support from the Bloomington Arts Commission, she was able to provide a hands-on experience for the students.
“I’ve taught this class before when we haven’t had the money to build something and it’s all been a little bit academic,” says Sprowls. “But, these students have been involved in the nitty gritty of, What do we need to think about as we change the shape of these panels? How many watts do we need? How much can we spend to invert from DC to AC? All of those pieces became a lot more real.”
Form Over Function?
Ryan Bredemeyer and James Scallon are ninth graders in Sprowls Energy Class. They said the class originally envisioned a sculpture similar to a camera aperture. “But due to structural and space concerns, we decided to condense it,” says Bredemeyer. The result looks more like a pinwheel or a flower, “Which ultimately still worked out and is still pretty awesome,” adds Scallon.
The 8 triangular solar panels generate about 700 watts. While the students collaborated on the design, Wes Biddle of Atomic Electric and Alex Jarvis of Solar Systems of Indiana helped adapt it into a workable structure.
“Being that it’s an art piece and kind of a demonstration piece,” says Biddle, “the kids felt like it was a better value to have less wattage and little more artistic design.”
Turn Off, Unplug
Long before the ground was broken on the solar sculpture, the students conducted an audit of the school’s energy usage. They measured each appliance with kilowatt meters. What they discovered is that small appliances in standby mode were the primary users of energy — think of the little red light that stays on even when your TV is turned off but not unplugged.
Eleventh grader Jessica Smith says this exercise has changed how she consumes energy.
“When I would think about electricity, I always saw it in a saving money aspect. I never really thought about it as saving our planet. So it’s really cool to tie that in.”
While the students can change their personal habits, the school is unlikely to undergo a massive energy consumption overhaul. That’s partially due to the fact that, according to school director Steve Bonchek, this is the oldest school building in the state still being used as a school.
Nevertheless he applauds the students’ research. “Environmental stewardship and ecological literacy is one of our core principles here, so we really want the kids to feel a sense of responsibility for leaving things better than they found them.”
Another one of Harmony School’s core principles is creating community, which Bredemeyer says was as important to this project as designing and building the solar sculpture.
“I also like volunteering for the school. In a way, it’s part of the culture both at the school and in Bloomington.”