At one time, solar power might've seemed fit only for crunchy granola hippies or high-tech futurists. But the rest of the world has finally caught up—U.S. solar installations have surged to more than 23 times over in the past eight years alone, and even the most conservative estimates predict solar as our number one energy source within the next 40 years!
Because this inevitable solar boom is so near, it’s also the future for our kids. And since kids learn best when they’re having fun and being creative, here are some fun ways to show them the spectacular power of solar—less classroom style and more mad scientist approved.
Photo via E is for Explore
The Project: Is there a kid on this earth who doesn’t go crazy for a water balloon fight? For the ultimate outdoor activity and science lesson in one, fill two plastic soda bottles with water—one painted black, the other white—and attach a balloon to the neck of each. Watch as the sun heats the water, which will slowly fill the black balloon—while the white balloon stays the same.
The Lesson: This teaches about not just the different types of energy and how sunlight can be converted to heat, but about the visible light spectrum, too. The black balloon fills because the color black absorbs all the wavelengths of light and converts it to heat—which then heats the water inside the bottle and fills the balloon. A white object, on the other hand, reflects the light, so the heat isn't converted. You can talk about examples of this that you might see every day, such as why we feel hotter wearing a black shirt on a hot day, and why all solar panels are black. (But don’t talk too long or you might feel the smack of a water balloon at the back of your head.)
Solar S’mores Oven
Photo above via Butter With a Side of Bread
The Project: On the top of a closed pizza box, create a flap in the lid by cutting along the three sides and leaving the line at the rear of the box attached. Make sure to cut your flap 1-2" smaller than the box itself. Glue aluminum foil to cover the entire underside of flap. Now, open the pizza box and tape a double layer of plastic wrap under the lid—the sun will permeate this to cook the food. Finally, line the bottom inside of the box with black construction paper, and the sides with aluminum foil. Place your s’mores inside the box under the plastic, and get ready for some tasty teaching.
The Lesson: This is a simple way to demonstrate the power of the sun, and how we can collect solar energy to use for our own benefit—in this case, heating. The foil acts as a conductor, reflecting sunlight into the box, which heats the air that's trapped inside. The change from hard chocolate and crackers to gooey s’mores are delicious proof to see the results of solar energy firsthand.
Photo via Hello Homebody
The Project: All you need for this project is a glass jar, a solar garden light, and heavy-duty glue. Pop the solar light apart, take the top piece (with the panel and light bulb), and glue around the panel before attaching it to the jar lid. Once dry, set it out in the sun during the day to "charge" and watch it glow at night! You can frost this as more of a night light, or even attach a handle for a lantern.
The Lesson: This is a fun way to introduce solar panels, explaining that we can collect solar energy and use that heat captured in the solar panels on our roofs for heat and power—the same way you just did with your solar lamp! You can enlighten the kids here with the concept of clean, sustainable energy, and how the sun provides enough energy in one minute to meet the world’s energy needs for an entire year. This can open a conversation about the state of our environment, and why making use of solar energy reduces harmful pollution and our reliance on fossil fuels.
During your projects, ask lots of questions and see if your child can come up with other examples of these scientific concepts at play in our daily lives. This fosters their curiosity not just for the project at hand, but for learning in general. Who knows, you may just have a budding solar scientist on your hands!