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Writer's Insight – Harnessing the Sun

Barbara Ryan - Harnessing the Sun
Barbara Ryan - Harnessing the Sun

This science story was developed simply because I’d taught solar energy to several classes (students aged 7–10) and it was a favourite with them and with me, and solar energy is an important science focus with scientists exploring future energy sources.

Students are seeing more and more applications of solar energy around them – from road signs to roofing panels. They ask questions about what they are. Solar energy has a good basis for inquiry learning. When I was teaching about solar energy, I often brought solar-powered devices to school (small matchbox-sized cars were a favourite). I gave the students the cars, hopping frogs and spinning wheels on tiny motors and told them to take them outside. Of course, I chose a day the Sun was out. The toys and gadgets worked immediately. The questions then poured from the students ‘Why is it going?’ ‘How does it work?’ and then (when a cloud came over the Sun) ‘Why has it stopped?’ ‘How do I make it go again?’ and then (when the cloud moved away from the Sun) ‘Hey! How did that happen?’ It was a real hook into photovoltaics.

To capture the students at the beginning of my unit on solar energy, I often read the story of Māui and the Sun and related it to scientists of today also seeking to harness the Sun.

I chose to look at solar energy as a science story, which is smaller than a context and therefore more like a unit of work (that primary teachers are used to). All the articles and activities may be used as a unit (though it’s not necessary), and there is an order for building science knowledge. The three science ideas and concepts should be covered in this order: solar energy, using solar energy and photovoltaics. Teaching and learning activities and other articles are linked to each of these.

New Zealand research

A happy coincidence for me was that my brother-in-law is a scientist who just happened to be working in the area of photovoltaics at the time of developing this story. It turns out that he was instrumental in developing a new type of photovoltaic roofing (which is in the process of being produced). My interview with him is part of this science story.

Science ideas and concepts

A concern for me (as a primary teacher) is that other primary teachers without science backgrounds have to understand the science ideas that need to be taught to the students. The big idea in this story is that energy from the Sun is transformed into other useful forms of energy for us here on Earth. I have mentioned photosynthesis, but only in passing, to give students the idea that, without the Sun, nothing would survive – the Sun’s energy is transformed into food for plants (and consequently all living things).

Transformation to heat energy is explored through hands-on activities, and then students explore a newer form of solar energy transformation – photovoltaics – producing electrical energy (electricity). Students love learning about photovoltaics, and great discussions can be developed about what they think might be happening. The science can be as deep as you want to go – giving scope to keen science teachers and gifted and talented students to go further afield and learn more about the workings of semiconductors at molecular levels.

Here is a diagram of how I saw the science ideas and concepts fitting together in this story.

Science ideas and concepts.

Teaching and learning activities

I have used these teaching and learning activities and know they work. You just need good weather and an understanding of the science involved. Take time to read the science ideas and concepts articles.