Discover Engineering! through the TechXcite Solar Energy Module: Racing with the sun

A Series of articles focusing on science, engineering and technology concepts using TechXcite modules available through a partnership between Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering and Michigan State University Extension.

Are you interested in learning more about alternative energy sources?  You and your child can explore the use of solar power with Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering program called ‘TechXcite Solar Energy Module of Racing with the Sun’Michigan State University Extension has partnered with Duke University to offer this program in 4-H after-school or out of school settings.  Parents and other adults are invited to get involved as facilitators. You do not need to have an engineering background to lead the program.  Adults can learn along with the youth. Ready to go curriculum is provided for facilitators that focuses on student inquiry and the engineering design process. 

Youth ages 9 to 19 will investigate solar power and will be asked to determine throughout the module its advantages and disadvantages.  How can energy from the sun make electricity?  They will use a solar panel to capture the sun’s energy to answer this question.  Using a multimeter, they will then measure the amount of voltage that is created. Two solar panels will be used to investigate how much electricity can be supplied by two.  During this process, they are led to determine what can impact how much electricity the solar panels produce?

Construction of a solar powered car occurs in the next session.  Youth will be asked what components a solar car needs?  What is important about how the solar panel is mounted, and why?  All of the components necessary to build the cars, measure voltage and complete the challenge are provided within the module kit.  Youth  will be led to follow the directions for construction that are provided within the module.  They work in teams of two to four to complete their cars and then test to make sure their car functions.  If it doesn’t, they work together to troubleshoot in order to fix the problem.

Finally, each team will determine how they will test their cars.  The next step  will be to  complete a solar car challenge that may involve racing against each other or timing them over a known distance.  After they complete the determined challenge, time will be given to improve their design and try the challenge again.

Teams will be led to share the challenges, success and failures that  they experienced with their solar car designs; this is an opportunity for them to learn from each other.  In a final discussion, teams will compare a solar car to a gas powered car.  It will be determined what obstacles need to be overcome in order to make a solar car more practical.

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