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Crowdfunded solar-powered classroom leaves the grid


July 5, 2013

Aaron Sebens and his class of fourth-graders from the Central Park School for Children in Durham, North Carolina

Aaron Sebens and his class of fourth-graders from the Central Park School for Children in Durham, North Carolina

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Aaron Sebens and his class of fourth-graders from the Central Park School for Children in Durham, North Carolina hit Kickstarter back in March to try and raise enough money for their classroom to go off-grid. A rather modest target of US$800 was smashed within a day by the kindness of the international community and, at campaign end, the kids found themselves with the handsome sum of $5,817 to spend on the purchase and installation of a roof-mounted solar energy harvesting system. A wind turbine was added to the shopping list, and just two months later, the 208ers threw a huge "Flip the Switch" party to celebrate leaving the grid. Sebens reports that the classroom has been running on renewables ever since.

The original idea to power the classroom from solar came from discussions in lessons, so it will come as no surprise that the project has since been used as fodder for math, writing, and science lessons, including the design and testing of different wind turbines.

"When we raised more money than we thought, we upgraded our system substantially, more panels, more batteries, and a better inverter that is grid tie capable," says Sebens. "All of the energy is currently stored in batteries but we hope to move to grid tie eventually (it's a lot of permits, time, and paperwork). We used the rest of the money to make and ship Kickstarter rewards and to do a wind turbine engineering project. Every 4th grader designed and built their own wind turbine and we tested to see which were able to generate the most electricity."

Support for the project has come in from all corners, including a tweet from the White House that linked to the US Department of Energy video below.

The PV system is made up of six Sharp 130 W panels mounted on the school roof, plus there's 100 ft (30 m) of 10-gauge wire connecting them to a charge controller in the classroom, and from there into four Rolls S-460 deep cycle batteries in a clear plastic-topped, vented container. More wires lead to an inverter, and then to a breaker box for the 208 classroom and part of a neighboring room.

"We've found so far that we make about 20 amps at 30-ish volts during peak sun and between 8-10 amps in non peak or when it's cloudy," reports the teacher. "When we have really rainy days we cut down our usage and run off the batteries."

According to an article written by class members for The Durham News, the system's wind turbine is 10 ft (3 m) tall and has six carbon composite blades. It's mounted 30 ft (9 m) off the ground, and starts producing electricity as soon as the wind gets above 6 mph (9.7 km/h).

As a thank you to project supporters, the class gathered for a charming rendition of Here Comes the Sun, which you can see in the video below.

Sources: Aaron Sebens' class, The Durham News

About the Author
Paul Ridden While Paul is loath to reveal his age, he will admit to cutting his IT teeth on a TRS-80 (although he won't say which version). An obsessive fascination with computer technology blossomed from hobby into career before the desire for sunnier climes saw him wave a fond farewell to his native Blighty in favor of Bordeaux, France. He's now a dedicated newshound pursuing the latest bleeding edge tech for Gizmag. All articles by Paul Ridden

A shame this lesson isn't done for every child. A far more important, and timely lesson than dissecting frogs or other such lessons.

John Parkes

It's a good start, but they should include other environmental initiatives. Solar water heating. Collecting rainwater from the roof for flushing toilets, which could be fairly inexpensive. Quite a few other things they can do. Go get 'em, kids! Show the naysayers that negativity never got anything done.


Gadgeteer - Don't be so critical, they have made a darn good start, and are educating the kids in practical science as well! If you are so earnest about the kids and environment, hold a neighbourhood boot sale and send the kids the money so they can do the things you suggest. You will get that "warm glow" and the kids will be even happier.

The Skud

Morningstar is happy to have our TriStar Controller be part of this awesome teaching opportunity in clean electricity.


Quit squabbling.. The important broader accomplishment is that this evolving project integrates the classical STEM topics into a small scale real world project. When I was in school math and science were taught in a manner intentionally divorced from useful applications on the bad, general theory that "technical" skill in math must be completed before considering any actual, useful application. This required a student have an inordinate tolerance for dull repetition and a vivid imagination that this "stuff" is actually good for something. The school, teachers and kids should be applauded for their audacity and tenacity. And then, they can think about solar water gain, phase change salts for heat storage, ( it's really cheeep & durable ), and more stuff to apply science to.


The beauty of this project is the ability to involve all type of learning styles in the process of putting this together. Aaron Sebens has probably not stopped smiling.

Bruce H. Anderson

aaron sebens national teacher of the year

Jason McGovern

This is real hands on education about the environment and renewable resources! This is where it's at, creating a generation that will grow up appreciating the electricity they have, and at the same time are giving to the environment instead of taking!

אריה ולדמן


Where was I being critical? I was giving them encouragement to keep going.


As well as learning about the construction side of what they have done, they will also learn not to waste energy and conserve it Well done to them when they could have stayed on the grid

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