At Waldorf school, kids experiment with solar panels

The half dozen solar panels mounted atop the Chicago Waldorf School in Rogers Park power just a handful of light bulbs.

But they provide students with the kind of hands-on experience in physics and environmental sicience that's not available in any book.

“They’ll learn about solar power, online data analysis, how electricity works and even global warming,” says Chicago Waldorf science teacher Jim Kotz, who wrote the grant proposal for the panels. 
The solar cells are the newest edition to the environmentally-conscious school. Money to buy them came from a $10,000 grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and Commonwealth Edison. 
The high school grades will likely see the most benefit academically since the students will wrestle with mathematical problems based on the panels, Kotz says. 
Students will be able to track the amount of energy the panels produce through a Web site that automatically determines the electrical output, he says. 
Middle school kids will use the panels in their course curriculum as well, by discussing energy conservation in class, he says. 
Kotz got the idea from another teacher who had written a solar panel grant for his school, so he thought he’d give it a try. 
But even before he wrote the proposal, Kotz saw an initial problem – the grant was for $10,000, but the panels would cost $2,000 more. 
So, the graduating classes of ‘07 and ‘08 decided to chip in by donating the money as a parting gift to the school. 
The panel system was a popular choice among students, who saw it as a way to make a lasting educational impact, says 19-year-old Michael Sanders, who graduated in June and now is studying physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology. 
“We thought it was a good investment,” Sanders says. “The panels may save electricity and energy costs, but also it was a permanent contribution to the school.” 
Besides the practical learning the panels bring to Chicago Waldorf students, they also serve another purpose, Kotz says. 
“We need to promote renewable energy,” Kotz says. “There is a limited supply of fossil fuels. It’s all part of that and what can we do to promote it.” 
The panels were a natural addition for the school, which strives to be environmentally savvy, says Luke Goodwin, school administrator. 
The school has already installed energy efficient windows and florescent lights. It also uses natural material in its furniture, Goodwin says.

Until recently, the school’s environmental crown jewel had been an organic garden tended by students.

The vacant lot, a block east of the school, was the property of Loyola University.

The university allowed the school to use the land for about a decade, but recently reclaimed it as part of a development project.

So, the panels have come as a sort of replacement for the garden, arriving just at the right time, Goodwin says. 

“First and foremost, it’s for an educational purpose, but also it’s an energy saving tool,” Goodwin says. “It has enough to light up about 10 light bulbs in a day, so we are getting some energy from it.”