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October 16, 2016

Student Reporting Labs STEM Lesson Plan: Solar Cars and S’mores

Can you think of innovative ways we can use the sun to provide us with energy? In this NewsHour lesson, students will design their own solar cars and research how to make their vehicles ecologically friendly. Using the student-produced video, “Racing towards solar powered cars,” by Student Reporting Labs, your class will learn how solar powered cars can help reduce our carbon footprint.


Middle School


Science, social studies, technology, engineering

Essential question

How can the sun’s energy be used as a renewable resource?


Students will be able to explain the importance of the sun for energy, discuss various solar technologies and link the use of energy to the sun.


As human activity continues to exacerbate climate change, it is important for people to use renewable resources such as the sun, wind and hydropower. For example, solar panels are used to capture the sun’s light and turn them into power for homes, equipment and vehicles. Solar cars use solar panels on the roof and may also run on electricity. Using these cars will save carbon emissions produced by gas-operated vehicles.

This lesson will demonstrate how the sun can be used to provide energy. Students will design their own solar cars and research how to make their vehicles ecologically friendly.


-small or large empty pizza box
-aluminum foil
-plastic wrap
-aluminum pie plate
-sticks, twigs or rulers strong enough to prop open the cover the pizza box
-graham crackers
-masking or duct tape


Warm up activity:

The sun is our closest star in the solar system and the largest object in our solar system. It is composed of hydrogen and helium and yields 386 billion megawatts of power. The sun is at the perfect distance from the Earth and is able to provide heat and light. The energy from the sun provides enough light to grow plants and warm the oceans. In the last few years, the sun’s energy is being used as a renewable resource, which means we will be able to rely on it for a very long time to come.

Watch the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs video, “Racing towards solar powered cars,” produced by Judge Memorial Catholic High School students in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

Discuss the following questions with your students:

  1. How does a solar or electric car benefit the environment?
  2. How fast does this car travel?
  3. Do you think the car is efficient enough for commuting to work and short trips? Long trips?
  4. What do you think some of the consequences will be if we do not convert to renewable energy resources?

Main Activity

Solar-Powered Car Research Poster Project

Students will create a poster in which they design their own car that has been specially outfitted with solar energy features. One section of the poster will be dedicated to a comparison of their solar-powered car (or electric car with solar panels) with a non-solar powered car — the kind of car most of us are driving around today. They should have fun decorating it with explanatory notes about the car’s main features as well as any neat extra gadgets and gizmos. The poster should include information from parts 1 and 2 below:

Part 1: Research the following: First have students decide on a car they would like to research. They may want to research their family’s car or one from a movie. Students should draw a picture of their car or use a computer program to create one and paste it on the middle of the poster. Be sure to include the following information:

  1. Name your driver and decide what he or she does for a living.
  2. Key features, including solar panels and electric engine, of the vehicle with a brief explanation.
  3. The number of times a day does the driver drives.
  4. How many miles does the driver drive at a time?
  5. City driving (lots of starts and stops) or highway driving?
  6. What speed do they travel most of the time?
  7. How much are current gas prices?

Part 2: On one part of the poster, students should include a section in which they state the differences between their car being powered by solar energy as opposed to gas. Try to include responses to the following questions:

  1. What would have to happen to make it worth investing in a solar car?
  2. How far can the car go?
  3. What speeds? (Can solar cars go fast?)
  4. How much power will have to be converted to electricity? What is the math needed to figure out the energy you get from solar panels on the roof? And how does that compare to gas?
  5. What are some additional comparisons you can make between gas and solar-powered cars?
  6. Using the same driving distance in part 1, calculate whether or not a solar-powered car would be less mileage.
    1. Here are some solar vs. gas car resources to find out this information:
      1. http://www.afdc.energy.gov/calc/
      2. https://driveclean.arb.ca.gov/pev/Costs/Calculate_Your_Costs.php
      3. http://evobsession.com/electric-car-cost-vs-gas-calculators/

Students should present their posters to the class or in small groups and answer any questions their classmates might have. You may want to include a tasty treat after the presentations–see below!

Extension Activities

Activity 1: Start the S’mores! Students will create a solar powered oven to demonstrate the power of solar energy.

  1. Line the inside of the pizza box with aluminum foil.
  2. Prop the box open by using sticks or twigs that you gathered.
  3. Place some S’mores on the aluminum plate.
  4. Cover the aluminum plate with plastic wrap and place it at center of the box.
  5. Turn your box into the direction of the sun and wait for s’mores to melt.

Short answer questions: How long it did it take for the s’mores to melt? How did covering up the plate help melt the s’mores? Why did you line the box with aluminum foil? Why did you use an aluminum plate?

Long answer questions: How does this activity demonstrate how the sun could be used to provide alternative ways of completing daily tasks? What about bigger more complicated problems in society? Why do we humans have an ethical responsibility to planet Earth? Why should we care about climate change?

Activity 2:

Watch the PBS NewsHour video “Companies race to make electric cars mainstream.” What will it take for electric cars to become mainstream?  What do you think of Aaron Robinson’s comment, “Tesla made them driveway jewelry for the wealthy, and once you’re driveway jewelry for the wealthy, you’re then desired by everybody else”? Why do you think Tesla declined to be interviewed for this story?

Check out the PBS NewsHour piece “Ford to debut electric car with solar-panel roof.” Do you think a hybrid car option is a good solution to the gas emissions problem? Why or why not? What are the advantages of Ford’s hybrid model? Disadvantages?

Kelly Sigro has been a science teacher for 16 years. She teaches at Fieldston Middle School in New York City.

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      Content Standard: NS.5-8.5 SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY In grades 5-8, all students should develop: • Comprehension related to abilities of technological design • Understanding about science and technology

      Content Standard: NS.5-8.6 PERSONAL AND SOCIAL PERSPECTIVES In grades 5-8, all students should develop an understanding of: • Populations, resources, and environments • Risks and benefits • Science and technology in society

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