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July 2, 2018

Lesson plan: Is solar power the future of energy?

Have you ever felt that nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach when you notice your smartphone has only 1 percent battery power left? Now, compare it to that tranquil sigh of relief when you see it’s at 100 percent. Humans require a lot of energy to get through the day and depend largely on utility companies to provide that energy. But where do these companies get their energy from?

In this NewsHour lesson, students will learn how utility companies and individuals — faced with greater demand and the effects of climate change — are inventing newer, greener ways to get power. Students will then create their own electrical circuits using innovative structures designed to save energy.




Science, engineering, biology, environmental science

Estimated time

Four 50-minute classes


The plummeting price of solar panels has led to a boom of customers and solar industry jobs. What does it mean for the evolution of utility companies? For the economy and the environment? What will energy sources look like in the future?

In this lesson, students will watch the PBS NewsHour video, “Rethinking the utility company as solar power heats up” and learn more about the changing nature of our energy and power grids. For the main project, they will experiment with circuits to build a more fault-tolerant system. These innovations allow utility companies to operate properly even if one of the faults fails.

Essential questions

  1. How is energy generated to power my phones and devices?
  2. On a local and global scale, what effects could solar power have on the environment?
  3. How might renewable sources of energy affect the evolution of utility companies?


  1. To understand how newer technologies like solar power may affect traditional utility companies, the economy and the environment.
  2. To demonstrate how an electrical current works through the creation of a prototyped system.
  3. To design a small-scale, fault-tolerant system based on distributed power grids.


Fault Tolerance:

Each student (or group) needs:

  • 10-20 lights from Christmas trees (disassembled so that the bulb is separated from the string)
  • 2 9V (D) batteries or 3V Solar Panels
  • 10 wires with alligator clips
  • Tweezers or needle-nosed pliers

Battery Creation:

Each student or group needs:

  • 5 copper pennies
  • Sandpaper
  • ½ cup of water and container
  • 4 teaspoons salt
  • 5 or so drops of vinegar
  • Mat board squares that are the same size as pennies

Individual: Engineering notebook for student notes


  • Invention
  • Innovation
  • Fault tolerant
  • Utilities/utility companies
  • Circuits
  • Renewable energy
  • Solar Power
  • Distributed Power Grid

Warm up project

(See differentiation ideas at the bottom of each section.)

Create a circuit! – Engaging learners

  1. Most things that you interact with each day that use light are, at some level, a simple circuit. In this activity, you’ll be creating a simple circuit.
  2. Ask each group to take 1 D-battery and one Christmas light, and two alligator wire clips. When LED bulbs are oriented correctly, these items should be able to make the Christmas light light up. Tell each group that they have 5 minutes to create a working circuit!

Differentiation considerations:

  • Encourage groups to iterate and design during this process.
  • Consider heterogeneous grouping as means for support.
  • Emphasize progress individuals or groups make; as each group completes their circuit, encourage them to support others in the process.

Main project

Exploring phenomena:

  1. Ask students to showcase their work. As light bulbs around the room light up, look for signs of student success. Tell the whole class that you can only move forward if everyone lights their bulbs at the same time. Encourage teamwork and peer support throughout this task. Ask members of the groups to pair-up to troubleshoot in order to encourage success.
  2. Explain that just one light in the circuit isn’t good enough anymore, and that we need to add more lights. Ask each group to take out an additional tree light, and an additional piece of wire with a clip. Ask them to extend this circuit, so that they can light up both lights in the circuit!

Differentiation considerations:

  • Use students as co-facilitators. Ask them what went well in their group, and how they were able to build upon one another’s strengths. Focus upon iteration in design.
  • If time allows, ask students to create diagrams of their design as visual support.
  • Like the previous activity, encourage peer-to-peer support and design.

Explaining phenomena:

But why does any of this matter? The way you get electricity into your home is built on the idea of circuits, but our power grid isn’t quite what it used to be. The technology used to build individual power sources has become cheaper and cheaper. At the same time, renewable energy has introduced a variety of new sources into the market, solar and wind among them. As a result, individuals have started to build their own power stations, and, in doing so, are influencing the energy grid.

  1. To further answer that “so what?” question, watch PBS NewsHour’s video, Rethinking the Utility Company as Solar Power Heats Up.

Discuss what students understood about the video. Use the following questions to guide discussion:

  • Has anyone ever been in a power-outage? What was it like?
  • Why are some people installing their own solar panels?
  • Why did the McMahon’s business still have energy even though others in the area lost power?
  • If you were given the opportunity, would you install solar panels in your house? Why or why not?

2.  Demonstrate why houses might lose energy in an electrical grid.

  • Ask students to turn back to their electrical grid, and remove one alligator clip. This represents a disconnection in power, like the falling of a tree, that can set up loss of power for the entire system. How might a downed power-line make this power grid fail? (Optional: Consider connections to Hurricane Maria and reviving power in Puerto Rico.)
  • Debrief with your students: Who comes up with these solutions, anyways? Scientists? Engineers? Electricians? Business managers? All these careers include men and women who have invented new technologies and tools. Inventors identify a problem, in this case, trees cutting out power, and attempt to design solutions to solve the problem, in this case, Tesla batteries and home-specific power.
    • The invention process is not always a clean process. Significant research, development and testing is required to find an appropriate solution. This might involve creating a piece of technology, or innovating or retooling an old one. What other problems have scientists attempted to solve with the invention of solar panels?
    • At the same time that scientists and engineers develop technology, they must also consider the impacts of their invention – and almost every technology has benefits and drawbacks. For example, coal energy plants are remarkably stable, but emit harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. What possible benefits are there to more solar energy? What are the possible drawbacks?

Differentiation considerations:

  • Use and support visual thinking through “Rethinking the Utility Company” video, including the transcript.
  • Depending on student engagement, consider breaking the video into shorter clips (possible stopping points include 2m:21s, 3m:55s, 5m:15s, 7m:38s)
  • If needed, use a Cornell Notes template to support student note-taking.
  • Consider asking students for other examples of systems that they rely upon (one example may be the internet when the connection or power are lost.)
  • Explicitly tie together multimodal learning – show the relationship between the video and the real-life Christmas lights.

Elaborate further: Build a battery and fault-tolerant system 

So, how, exactly, are individuals able to build circuits that are fault tolerant? How can one set of circuits fail while the rest of the grid stays online? Find out by building a battery and fault-tolerant system!

  1. Build your own battery: Use How to Make a Penny Battery From Start to Finish, or check the instructions below.
    • Create your salt solution by adding salt and vinegar and stirring.
    • Prepare your cells by sandin. Place your mat board in the salt solution.
    • While the mat board absorbs, sand away 1 side of 4 pennies so that the zinc is exposed. Leave one untouched.
    • Make a cell by placing 1 salty mat board upon the zinc side of each penny (you’ve made a cell!)
    • Create your battery by stacking each placing each penny so that the copper section is placed upon the salty mat board. Stack these until you can place your non-sandpapered penny on top of the stack.
    • Finish your battery by wrapping your cell in electric tape.
    • Try out your cell! Make sure it works by building the same style of circuit you explored at the beginning of class. Your battery should be able to power at least one LED light.

Now that you’ve examined how batteries store energy, how batteries work and the ways in which fault tolerance is important, you are ready for your design challenge.

2. Design challenge: Your team runs a solar company like CEO like Mary Powell. You’ve been given the job of designing a new power grid in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria that is fault tolerantYour proposal will need:

  • A diagram that shows how your system will be organized.
  • A working model of a fault-tolerant system (where if one of the batteries is cut off, the system doesn’t lose all its power).
  • A battery you’ve built.
  • An explanation of how long your system will last.
  • A decision on whether to build many small batteries or one large battery.

3. If it helps your team, we suggest breaking into roles:

  • Battery Production: Builds working penny batteries for the system.
  • Researcher and Designer: Tests efficiency of batteries (are more cells better?).
  • Prototyper: Creates fault-tolerant system using batteries, 2 lights and wires.

Note: Before starting, know that crossing poles of 9-Volt batteries can be extremely dangerous. Always store your 9vs with terminals untouched by other objects or batteries.

Differentiation considerations:

  • This can be tough! Encourage students to try things that fail.
  • Questions prompts for peer support can be useful.
  • If needed, ask one student to be the “Builder” and another to be the “Supervisor” to encourage one of the students to focus on brainstorming.
  • This activity can be done in groups (heterogeneous grouping is preferable).
  • Consider grouping students by drawing/sketching preference and/or presentation skills.
  • Ask students to consider the local needs of users – although they may not be able to articulate specific energies, they can start considering things like energy budget.
  • If necessary, direct student to their models, or ask them to build the model they are drawing. How would this system work?
  • Encourage peer supports and feedback.


You are a power company CEO like Mary Powell. You’ve been given the job of designing a new power grid in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Using your understanding of energy systems, draw your proposal for a new power grid system, and explain why your grid will be successful if future catastrophic events occur. Defend your proposal to your classmates. Your class will decide on the winning bid! Show a model of this working system.

Student’s proposals should include the following:

  • Student-created batteries with an explanation of whether larger batteries will be a better solution, and why that might be the case.
  • A testable fault-tolerant system where if one of the batteries is cut off from the grid, the remainder of the system will continue to function.
  • A diagram that shows how this system will work.

If students want more direction on how to build out their system, show an example of a power grid diagram. See below.

Differentiation considerations:

  • This activity can be done in groups (heterogeneous grouping is preferable).
  • Consider grouping students be drawing/sketching preference and/or presentation skills.
  • Ask students to consider the local needs of users – although they may not be able to articulate specific energies, they can start considering things like energy budget.
  • If necessary, direct student to their models, or ask them build the model that they are drawing. How would this system work?
  • Encourage peer supports, and feedback.

Share away!

We would love to hear how you used this project in your class. Send pictures, videos and feedback to @NewsHourExtra using #PBSInvention via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Email newshourextra@gmail.com with any questions.

Extension activities

  • Option 1: Defend Your Grid! Come together with your team to further your Power Proposal! Create a presentation with the prompt from “Evaluation” (above) to present to class with your peers as community members. Vote or debate the best possible grid; make sure to use examples from the video.
    • Differentiation considerations: See activity above; this can be extended into a one/two period activity dependent on student interest and support.
    • To increase interest in option 2, push students to present to the principal and custodial staff. If resources are available, purchase and install the system with student support. Use the system to power small projects in the classroom.
  • Option 2: Kenya and Power Grids! Vermont and Puerto Rico are not the only locations in the world that need power. Locations in the developing world are looking for ways to extend their power supplies! Watch PBS NewsHour’s In Remote Kenyan Villages, solar startups bring Light.”
    • Testing and understanding how light and energy are transferred can be an exciting experimental design project. Use small solar panels to test the total output of different locations around the school.
    • As a final project, ask students to create a proposal for solar panel installation at the school (or in class). Give a limited budget – they will need to choose where their particular panels will go. Consider light exposure, direction of the panels and total time in the sun. If possible, actually install some solar panels.
    • Differentiation considerationsTo increase interest, push students to present to the principal and custodial staff. If resources are available, purchase and install the system with student support. Use the system to power small projects in the classroom.

Abe Cohen-Garcia teaches science and computer science at Bronx Arena High School in Bronx, NY.

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      Next Generation Science Standards

      HS-ETS1-2 Engineering Design Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.

      HS-ETS1-3 Engineering Design Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

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