Campus & Community

Educators Learn to Use Stevens’ Solar Home as a STEM Teaching Tool

As the Stevens Institute of Technology design team puts the finishing touches on its solar-powered, storm-resilient home – the SURE HOUSE – to compete in the upcoming Solar Decathlon in Irvine, California, 39 teachers from 14 New Jersey school districts took part in a week-long workshop (July 27-31) at Stevens’ Griffith Building to develop SURE HOUSE-inspired lesson plans to take back to their schools.

The workshop, a collaboration between the SURE HOUSE team and the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education (CIESE) at Stevens, was made possible by the Partnership to Improve Student Achievement (PISA2). Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), PISA2 engages 3rd-through-8th-grade teachers in more than a dozen New Jersey school districts to participate in either graduate-level science course classes or a series of week-long summer institutes.

Gregory Bartus, adjunct professor and senior STEM curriculum and professional development specialist at CIESE, says Stevens’ participation in the Solar Decathlon presented a unique opportunity for CIESE to expose teachers to a real-world application of systems engineering through its PISA2 workshop.

“When students ask why they are learning to multiply, divide, and other basic skills, I want teachers to have an authentic experience to relate to rather than say, ‘well you’ll need to know it,’” says Bartus.

Gaylen Nolen, a 4th-grade teacher at Newbury School in Howell Township, says the program will help her guide students' explorations in science by broadening her instruction to include actual engineering practices.

“I have always felt that students learn by ‘doing,’ and with what I’ve learned from this workshop I feel better prepared to incorporate this type of learning in my classroom,” she says. “Another huge plus is being able to take back to our schools the materials that we used in the workshop. Without those, it would be a challenge to provide students with meaningful experiences in this area.”

Christine Padilla, who teaches 6th- and 7th-grade science at Mahatma Gandhi Elementary in Jersey City, says she was eager to gain actual teaching experience in STEM in anticipation of new curriculum standards.

“The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) will be in place soon in all school districts and the integration of STEM approaches is a new component to the standards. So it became clear to me that one of my teaching goals was to gain this experience through the PISA2 program,” says Padilla.

With a focus on energy conservation and transformation, participants were grouped into teams and engaged in activities that were modeled after the actual Solar Decathlon competition.

“Within the competition there are contests with specific requirements and expectations. The SURE HOUSE, for example, has to be energy neutral – it’s both consuming and generating energy. So we’re challenging teachers to do that same sort of assessment on the wind farm they’re using to power a mock house they’re designing,” describes Bartus.

Other activities reinforced the science and physics concepts used in the SURE HOUSE.

“We judged participants on how well they could explain capacitors, voltage, current, things like that to kids who represent the age group that they would teach to. That reinforces the idea that if engineering is going to help students perform better in science there has to be an explicit connection made there,” explained Bartus.

Having an actual solar-powered home to use as a teaching tool was a rare opportunity that increased the engagement of the teachers and their excitement, says Katheryn Kennedy, program manager for the PISA2 program.

“To be there on-site and talking with the builders and the designers of the SURE HOUSE has been a tremendous learning opportunity for them. It induces their questioning and level of understanding in a much more authentic way than we can within the constraints of the workshop,” says Kennedy.

A fully-guided tour of the home left participants impressed by the engineering innovations that inspired the name of the house – SUstainable REsilient HOUSE.

“You hear and read about these energy conservation technologies, but you wonder if any of it has been employed on a real scale and not just in theory,” Padilla says. “The SURE HOUSE is living proof that these technologies are possible and being made possible by a diverse group of creative, dedicated students from various disciplines at Stevens.”

Nolen described the SURE HOUSE to be both functional and beautiful. As a resident of Spring Lake who witnessed the destruction of Hurricane Sandy firsthand, Nolen was particularly impressed by features that made the house storm resilient, such as the bi-folding shutters that have the capacity to collect solar power and guard against hurricane-force winds. She plans to take another look at the SURE HOUSE when it makes its return to New Jersey after the competition and settles permanently in the nearby town of Seaside Park.

“I am looking forward to visiting the completed house and possibly bring students to see it once it returns to New Jersey.”