Vipin Gupta (left) and James Madison Academic Campus teacher Patrick Tao meet with students to discuss JMAC's solar challenge. | Photo courtesy of James Madison Academic Campus |


In Milwaukee, Wis., some students are using a now-legendary story, Recovery Act funding, a local rivalry and the know-how of some dedicated energy professionals to learn about the clean energy sector and produce renewable energy at their schools.

Sportsmanship sparks an idea

When Vipin Gupta, Tiger Team project lead at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., first heard the story of the James Madison Academic Campus Knights basketball team facing its archrival, the DeKalb (Ill.) High School Barbs, he was impressed with the sportsmanship shown by the Barbs during the game last year.



The Knights’ captain had lost his mother to cancer only hours earlier, yet the young man marched onto the court after halftime, ready to play. This emotional moment quickly became controversial — the referees had determined that the player’s entrance into the game would result in a technical foul because he had not been included on the active roster for the night. DeKalb’s coach declined the penalty, but rules are rules, the refs contested. That’s when the Barbs’ free-throw shooter intentionally missed his next shots and roused a standing ovation from the crowd.

Such a display of sportsmanship in the heat of a bitter rivalry showed Vipin that students can compete and still have fun while doing something nice for one another. This sparked an idea.“We have a vision of helping every school across the country install solar energy systems to make the technology mainstream, and this story inspired us,” Vipin says. “We thought, wow, what if we take advantage of friendly high school rivalries to help solar get adopted?”

Getting on board

Vipin’s idea was to pit JMAC’s students against a rival high school by asking students at both schools to design solar arrays and solar hot water heater systems for each other’s buildings. Vipin shared his idea with the principal of JMAC and with Andrea Luecke, project manager of Solar America Cities’ Milwaukee Shines program. JMAC science teacher Patrick Tao was also consulted, and he’s been enthusiastic ever since, helping arrange the challenge with nearby Bay View High School. He started teaching students about solar power in his chemistry class, and now the project has evolved into an afterschool program where students get practice running their own solar company.

“We work at the conceptual level and especially at the analytical and technical levels, where we derive equations that describe energy usage, system efficiency and energy absorption,” Patrick says. “We’re trying to use these ideas to build and innovate better tools for the solar industry.”

The DOE’s technical assistance Tiger Team supplies Patrick — and his counterpart at BVHS — with the technical material and course training necessary to make sure students are getting the most out of learning about photovoltaic installation and solar hot water systems. Those resources, along with a technical helpline and periodic visits, should provide the students and teachers with many of the tools needed to help them successfully complete the challenge.

Enriching students’ lives

Patrick explains that JMAC, a high school in an urban area, is one of a handful of schools in the Milwaukee Public School system that has been identified of being in need of academic improvements. The students may have a lot to overcome, but there is reason to be hopeful. Under the guidance of their current principal, JMAC staff and students have made considerable improvements in classroom engagement and curriculum alignment and rigor.

The Solar School Swap project is another vehicle by which the educational atmosphere is improving. Other teachers tell Patrick the solar project is making students more interested in math and science across the board. Over the past year, the project has become a student-driven company, JMAC Innovations, made up of a core group of 10 highly motivated students who promote renewable energy education and work to create technology and tools for the industry.

“Those who have stuck with it have tremendous respect for themselves as students, they have more confidence, they behave better and perform better in classes,” he says. “They enjoy what we’re doing here, and they can’t wait to come to our meetings — they know important people are paying attention to them, and it’s making them perform better.”

Fueled by stimulus

Milwaukee is one of the DOE’s Solar America Cities that received a special projects award through the Recovery Act. Out of that stimulus funding for solar power in Milwaukee, each of the two schools participating in the solar swap is receiving $100,000 to help with the installation of 20 kW worth of solar power, along with a mid-scale solar hot water system. The city’s team will conduct site assessments and help provide input, along with the DOE technical assistance team, when installation begins in mid-2011. Until then, Vipin, Andrea, Patrick, faculty with the Milwaukee School of Engineering and others are working with students to get the engineering behind the installations right while learning valuable lessons about renewable energy.

“This is one of the more innovative ways to get students involved with solar,” Andrea says. “I’m curious to see how it will work and if it can become a national model.”

The students are looking to their futures, showing grade improvements. Many indicate they may study energy in college. Others have already expressed interest in becoming installers of renewable energy systems.

“Otherwise, some students might be tempted to be wayward, but these students believe that clean technologies are the future and that this innovative curriculum could lead to a career,” Andrea says.

And while working in the field of clean energy, where the resources are virtually limitless, does sound great to the students, many of them might be thinking about one other short-term objective — beating their rival.

That would be a slam-dunk ending to the story of swapping solar.