magine a classroom powered entirely by enthusiasm, and you'll get the general idea of the Solar Energy Education Center at St. Mary Central High School in Neenah, Wis. If the love of learning is a form of energy, then teacher and Solar Center Director Allan Clarke '77 is the source. His excitement is captured by his students, who transmit it through the school and out into the larger community.
"I love the way kids come into a classroom so expectant, and they absolutely energize you," he says. "It may sound corny, but it's so real. It's like - Wow! For 45 minutes, you can share with them some of the secrets of the universe!"
Words like "wow" and "whoa" and "awesome" crop up a lot when Clarke talks about the Solar Center, which broke ground in January and was dedicated in May. Housed in a converted storage garage on school grounds, the center boasts a 1,000-watt photovoltaic system, a 900-watt wind turbine, and solar energy demonstration equipment that would be the envy of many colleges. The center is home base to St. Mary Central's "Solar Team," keepers of two beautiful electric vehicles - a bright red dune buggy called the Solar Spirit and an electric - blue go-cart called Zephyr Lightning.
Clarke still can't get over the generosity and good fortune that brought the center into being. "The solar center is a visible manifestation of things I've always believed in and I've tried to do in the classroom," he says. "I don't know how I did it before. How could I possibly teach solar energy operating out of a filing cabinet in my classroom, where you can only have things out for a day, then you've got to put it all away?"
Inside the solar center, students can feel hot air blowing in from the solar heating panel, even on a Wisconsin winter day. They can pedal the "Energy Cycle" - a stationary bicycle that generates electricity - until they've made enough juice to light a light bulb or run a hair dryer. "When they see, for example, that it takes 100 hours of cycling just to heat up your bath water, they begin to value resources differently," says Clarke. "And when they connect it with burning natural gas, oil or coal, they start to understand that there's got to be a better way."
"There are so many ways you can teach energy," he continues, "from lighting a match, to bouncing a ball or shooting a rocket. I've always been a hands-on, involved teacher. I love deep theory, and I love to teach it. But it doesn't have to be heavy or dry. When kids can touch something that's real, it just sticks with them."
At community picnics and fairs, the Solar Spirit and the Zephyr Lightning draw a crowd faster than you can say "solar assisted vehicle." Kids are flabbergasted by a quiet engine that uses no gas and creates no fumes. The Zephyr Lightning, built by St. Mary Central students in 1994, impressed the local Community Foundation so much that it funded construction of the Solar Spirit, and later donated funds for a trailer so the cars could be displayed throughout the area. Enthusiasm and donations snowballed from there. In 1996, Clarke formed a partnership with the Fox Cities Children's Museum in nearby Appleton, and together they obtained a $20,000 grant for students to build a working photovoltaic exhibit for the museum.
As the solar team grew, Clarke dreamed of establishing a permanent home, where students could work on long-term projects, consult with professionals, and expand outreach to other schools and community groups. In the fall of 1997, Clarke learned that Wisconsin Electric Power Co. was offering a $15,000 photovoltaic system to the most deserving school or group in the state. With the deadline only weeks away, he and his wife, Ann, worked round the clock and pulled together a winning proposal.
A large local construction company, Miron Construction, volunteered its services for the $50,000 job of converting a storage garage to a solar education center. Other supporters rallied to the cause. The teamwork was documented in a video, which was shown at the dedication this spring.
Although Clarke is justifiably proud of the physical apparatus - the likes of which many college students never see - it's the humbling challenge of reaching young minds that matters to him. "The Solar Center is really just a model for education," he says. "This center could have been devoted to robotics, it could have been for telecommunications... it just happened to be on the vital topic of energy. What I'm discovering is that most people have a deep thirst for knowledge. It's just a matter of how you turn that on and off."
In fact, it was at WPI that Clarke discovered his love of learning and his desire to teach. He was inspired by the "Comps" - Comprehensive Exams taken by seniors in the early years of the WPI Plan. To prepare for the exams, Clarke spent time with each of his professors, asking the questions that he never understood in class. He realized that he loved learning. But a number of his fellow seniors - some of whom had spent the winter break skiing or sleeping off the previous semester - had failed the exams and would not graduate. At Commencement, Clarke says he was filled with empathy, and a growing desire to go into teaching.
After a few years in research and development with Procter & Gamble and the former American Can Co., he earned his teaching certificate in high school science and mathematics at Lawrence University in Appleton in 1982 and accepted a position at St. Mary Central that summer. "WPI prepared me for teaching very well," he says. "It trained me not to just fill a slot but to create new opportunities. If there are needs, don't complain - fill them. If you see problems, fix them."
At St. Mary Central, students are beginning to consider it cool to be part of the Solar Team. Being elected a co-director is even cooler. "We're working hard at making it an awesome thing," says Clarke, "and what we're seeing is a new breed of leadership." He has some choice words to describe the type of students who manage the solar center: respectful, cordial, quiet, mature, modest. The co-directors take on responsibility without being asked, and never miss a meeting without prior notice.
"But we never forget that they are high school students," he asserts. "We don't want to fast-track their lives." Not all of the students are interested in technology: there are roles for artists and writers, fund-raisers, and would-be entrepreneurs. "They don't realize they're getting leadership, management and research practice, along with a chance to develop their people skills," adds Clarke.
The solar team's next step will be to bring electric vehicle racing to Wisconsin, with the goal of holding an "electrathon" in the year 2000. Clarke envisions having the electrathon vehicles lead the runners in the Fox Cities Marathon. He would also like to start an Explorers scouting post devoted to energy, to give students from the surrounding towns a chance to use the solar center's facilities. This fall he will be teaching the state's first high school course on solar technology, and he is excited about the interest from educators from other parts of the country, who seek guidance in starting alternative energy centers of their own.
With all the plans and progress, Clarke is still filled with wonder over the simple phenomenon that makes it possible for the sun to create electricity through a flow of electrons. "The science behind solar energy is absolutely beautiful," he exclaims. His voice swells with joy as he compares the rhythmic motion of electrons to a symphony orchestra, or describes the peaceful whirring of a wind turbine. This technology holds the power to transform the world, says Clarke, even beyond the invention of the wheel.
Three generations of the Clarke family are invested in the Solar Center and the future of alternative energy. Allan's father is Edward N. Clarke, a pioneer in the semiconductor field, who is professor emeritus of electrical engineering, former associate dean of graduate studies and director of research, and former head of the Center for Solar Electrification at WPI. A principal donor of the solar center, he was invited to speak at St. Mary Central's convocation and the dedication of the center.
"It was exciting, as a father and also as someone interested in solar energy," he says. Sarah Clarke, Allan's daughter, is currently one of the center's five co-directors. They all agree that the best way to ensure the future of renewable energy is to put the developing technology into the hands of young people.
Allan Clarke observes that kids may be more open to new technology than adults, who are often locked into the status quo. But when adults see the kids getting excited, they tune in and start paying attention. Clarke thrives on these interactions, when his students have the confidence to show visitors around the center and answer questions.
"The kids become the teacher, and I just sit back, loving all of this, because my role is to get people teaching each other. That's when I feel like my dreams have come true. It's just really, really, awesome. All because the sun can create electricity through a flow of electrons! You know, technology is a wonderful thing."
Last Updated: 11/19/98 19:23:31 EST