By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Alan Jensen and his student demonstrate a “solar suitcase.”
“I want my students to see the real connection between what they did and how it impacted the lives of orphans in Third World countries. I want them to know they make a difference.”
Alan Jensen and his students at Central Coast High School in Monterey made that connection when they brightened the lives of impoverished kids in rural areas of Uganda, Haiti and Sudan that have no electricity. They sent homemade “solar suitcases” that provide light and power.
Jensen’s students at the continuation school for at-risk youth built three 40-watt, waterproof, battery-powered suitcases with solar panels on top. The yellow suitcases have enough juice to light up a room for studying, provide power to a phone or computer, or illuminate an outdoor area to improve security. Jensen, a social studies and economics teacher and Monterey Bay Teachers Association member, says the sun charges the battery during the day, which provides the power at night.
Part of an after-school program for the Green Architecture Solar Technology department, students at neighboring Marina and Seaside high schools joined the effort.
Jensen got the idea from We Care Solar, wecaresolar.org, a Berkeley nonprofit that builds suitcases serving as power units, which are shipped to developing countries for use with emergency medical devices to save lives and decrease infant mortality. He attended a weeklong seminar in Colorado on how to build solar suitcases, packed up some ideas and headed back to his classroom eager to engage students in hands-on learning and philanthropy.
“We Care Solar provided inspiration and design ideas, but I had to change things to suit our needs,” says Jensen. “Our solar suitcases are geared toward orphanages and schools, not hospitals. I created lesson plans to help students do the work as a class project. Students got a better understanding of electrical wiring and learned hands-on skills like cutting wires and soldering. But the biggest takeaway is the humanitarian component. We are trying to fill a need because there are lots of kids around the world who don’t have power.”
It isn’t easy to build a solar suitcase, says Jensen, who used his more than 20 years of experience as a professional architect and contractor to safely construct the devices.
Forty-five students produced a total of four suitcases last year over a 10-week period. It cost about $1,400 per suitcase, and Jensen fronted the money before he was reimbursed by community donations and grant money. His hometown of Pebble Beach donated use of a large ballroom — which usually costs $5,000 — so that students in his program could have a “graduation” ceremony. The event was attended by Dr. Laura Stachel, founder of We Care Solar.
“The best thing was being able to help a community of people who are less fortunate than us,” says Ricardo Perez, a senior who worked on the project last year. “A lot of people think you wouldn’t do something like that in a continuation school, but yes, we did, because we like helping people. I told my teacher it would be my pleasure to make more suitcases.”
Perez says he learned a lot about electricity, soldering and working as a team. “It was fun to be working with a group of people. There was lots of talking and laughing.”
One suitcase was kept as a “demo” and the rest were delivered overseas by representatives of nonprofit agencies. One went to an orphanage in Uganda; another to an orphanage in Haiti. The third was taken to a remote village in Sudan by an original member of the “Lost Boys,” who survived a brutal war in his country.
Jensen is hoping those who delivered the suitcases will come back to school this year and describe the reaction of those who received the gift of light from students.
See a video of the solar suitcase in action at www.cta.org/alanjensen.