Solar power project gives students real-world work

March 18, 2014

By Neil Pierson

New: March 18, 3:10 p.m.

Five months ago, students at the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math School embarked upon a project that, initially, was puzzling and overwhelming.

Last week, however, the students at the Lake Washington School District choice school sounded like seasoned electrical engineers pitching a professional product to a potential client.

Six Sammamish residents were among the roughly 15 STEM students who were part of an internship opportunity with Genie, a Redmond-based company that produces various mechanical and electrical items for the construction industry.

From left, STEM School students Aaron Johnston, Kanaad Deodhar, Lynsey Liu and Pavan Kumar talk during a March 12 presentation about the sustainable, solar-powered house they created.  Photo by Neil Pierson

From left, STEM School students Aaron Johnston, Kanaad Deodhar, Lynsey Liu and Pavan Kumar talk during a March 12 presentation about the sustainable, solar-powered house they created. Photo by Neil Pierson

The students split up into four teams and worked for months on designing a solar-powered light tower, a tool that’s already widely used at construction sites worldwide. They had the help of several Genie engineers, who set parameters for the project like a budget, size specifications and illumination requirements.

Aaron Johnston, of Sammamish, and his fellow students on “Team Scintillation” were asked to design a light tower that could fully recharge on weekends, using an external power source. Among the many other requirements, the tower had to be able to hold a charge during winter months at a latitude of 45 degrees north – roughly the same latitude as Seattle.

“When we were asked, basically, to design this from the ground up … we found ourselves completely lost,” Johnston explained. “Once we sort of brainstormed a little bit, we started to get some ideas together.

“But I think getting started and figuring out how we were going to go forward was the hardest part. And then afterward, we realized that’s exactly what you would do in the professional field.”

Team Scintillation wound up designing a tower that ran on eight lead-acid batteries that weighted 69 pounds each, six light-emitting diode (LED) panels, and three 24-volt solar panels. The students figured out a fourth solar panel would be 96 percent useless, so it was removed to reduce costs.

Johnston’s team wound up meeting its project budget, with each unit costing $8,940.

Lake Washington schools have partnered with several area companies to provide internship-based learning as part of their STEM signature programs.

Each one of the district’s four comprehensive high school and four choice high schools will have at least one signature program by the start of the next school year. That’s part of the district’s evolving mission to provide “future-ready” students for colleges and workplaces, said Superintendent Traci Pierce.

At the March 12 solar-tower team presentations at STEM, Pierce told the audience that King County will have a surplus of 18,400 of STEM-related jobs over the next five years.

“Data shows that these much-needed and well-paying jobs are often being imported because we’re not doing enough locally to prepare students to enter these fields,” Pierce said.

During the course of the five-month project, Genie engineers visited the STEM School weekly. Raj Nand, one of the engineers, said they had several educational objectives, including the role of mechanical and electrical engineers in a heavy-equipment manufacturing company, and understanding customer needs when designing a product.

“We also wanted to teach the students how to communicate broad technical skills in presentations like this one, for instance,” Nand said. “We have to go through presentations at Genie, and one of the things we have to do is articulate the design specifications and engineering drawings in a manner where everyone can understand.”

Ronald DeFeo, CEO of Terex – Genie’s parent company – attended the presentation and said the internships proved valuable for both parties. Students seemed to understand how to re-negotiate specifications to create an efficient, cost-effective product.

“You can create what’s possible through ingenuity and hard work,” DeFeo said.

Student Weston Odendhal, of Sammamish, worked with “Team Snoopy” to build a light tower that was adaptable in a wide variety of locations, from San Francisco to Buenos Aires.

Odendhal said the internship perked up his interests for engineering.

“I think that we could all look at Genie and Terex as being something we’d want to get into,” he said. “It was really awesome working with their company, and the entire project was something we were really interested in.”

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