I wanted to teach my young son about solar energy, and all the ways it could be used in everyday life. I wanted him to realize that solar power could be used not only in the home, but also in cars, boats, and more. He seems to respond best to these small lessons if I can make it a hands on experience, so I went looking for something that would get my point across. Finding The Right Teaching Tool
I went though many different choices and ruled them out for being either too complicated, too limited, or just downright too expensive. Finally I stumbled upon the perfect teaching tool - the 6 in 1 Solar Kit from Red5. (Ed: Here is TreeHugger's quick take from CES 2009 on the 6 in 1 Solar Kit.)
The kit is perfect - there are only 37 parts in all, and no screws are required. This would be easier than putting together a Bionicle, something he loves. And with the robot tie in, well, like I said, for my uses this was perfect. Not to mention, it fit my budget.
Scope of the Lessons
The intention was to give him the ideal that solar power could be used in many different ways outside of the home. I wanted to show him a small car and a small boat that ran completely on solar power. If he could get his hands on them and make them run, then it might be easier to apply that to full size vehicles at a later date. Of course, solar power might be more of an additional power source to such a vehicle in the foreseeable future, but at least it starts him thinking.
The Different Models
The car model is easy to assemble, and really shows how a small car can be constructed to run along the ground powered only by the freely available sun. In the past (back in my day?) a small electric car would have required a steady investment in batteries.
The car is a great tool to show that not only is it economical (no batteries to buy), but it removes the dependency on batteries. That is, even if buying batteries was of no concern, you might find yourself out of power just when you need it most and could not make a battery run. That dependency, not only being costly, is a weakness that could make the difference between going or not. (This is also a lesson that home owners should consider about relying on the current power grid, but that is another story.)
The boat is fun since it mixes the fun of a hands on experiment with getting wet, another fun activity that he seems to enjoy. The boat is driven by a solar powered fan, and if so inclined, you can sneak in a small science lesson about direct wind power vehicles.
The solar windmill is a great way to show how we can be cooled off by using solar energy. Why do you need to sit in an air conditioned room when a solar solution can cool you off exactly when you need it most - under a nice bright sun. It is a perfect match of need and existing conditions.
The kit makes a robotic dog, which I did not consider to be of much use for the intended lesson. However, when my son saw the picture, he wanted to build it as well. Like most boys his age he is into robots, and the idea of building a solar powered model intrigued him.
We talked about how a solar powered robotic dog could make a great watch dog, and he ran with the ideal. He told me how the robotic watch dog would not need to be fed or watered, and how it would not go off chasing squirrels, leaving it unguarded. The robotic dog was one of the better lessons about the importance of sustainable energy and as it could relate to safety.
In the end, I felt that the solar kit made for a great lesson, and that we both got something from the experience. Hopefully he got a lesson about the different ways sustainable energy can help to enrich our lives and how having a dependency on existing power models can be a weakness. And I got a lesson in exactly how handy a solar powered robotic dog could be around the house.