A special 'suitcase' makes a one way trip from Winters High School to Tanzania

A class project from Winters High School is currently powering the lights in a school in rural Tanzania.
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A class project from Winters High School is currently lighting the dormitory of a high school in Tanzania.  Students in the math applications class built solar powered electric systems that are roughly the size of a small carry on suitcase. They are colloquially referred to as “solar suitcases,” and they provide electricity in schools and hospitals in multiple developing nations.  Winters High School got involved in building solar suitcases through recently retired math teacher Mike Challender. The school’s first eight suitcases were sponsored by Solar Suitcase Program, which was founded by PG&E around five years ago.  Challender also has a longstanding relationship with NEED, a national energy education department in Washington D.C. He has been teaching their curriculum at the high school since 2001. PG&E sponsored the Winters program through NEED for the first two years of the program. Since then it has been sponsored by We Share Solar.  In the math applications classroom, students spend lesson time learning to deconstruct and reconstruct one of the solar suitcases. After that Challender added his own twist to the program’s curriculum: He had each student write their names on the inside of the box. He then added his Winters High School email address. For several years these boxes have gone out, complete with the names of the students who constructed them, to developing nations in Africa and Asia. This year, Challender got a response.  Just a few days after the students of the math applications class walked across the graduation stage, Challender got an email from Tanzania. In it were photographs of the little blue box, along with all of the graduated seniors’ names, installed on the wall of the Tanzanian high school’s sleeping quarters. The high school is located near the base of Mt. Kilamenjaro, hundreds of miles from the closest large city. The students spend their week nights on campus, as the trip between school and home is several hours long and down unpaved dirt roads. This dormitory had been without a lighting system until the solar suitcase was installed. “Energy poverty” is the state of lacking access to modern energy services. For developing countries it is a vital, but potentially tricky, problem to solve. Installing electrical grids similar to the kind you would find in a modern American city is often too costly to be implemented.  These systems also produce more greenhouse gas emissions. As of 2013, the United States was emitting 19.9 metric tons of carbon dioxide and its equivalents per captia. Tanzania emitted 1.54.  Bypassing the traditionally modern energy grid and leaping straight to solar power circumvents both the monetary and environmental cost. Solar power is cheaper and cleaner to the alternatives.  This puts the solar suitcases in very high demand. Access to solar power is so sought after that, according to Challender, the most difficult aspect of the whole program can be ensuring that the solar suitcase arrives at the school.  To get the solar suitcases to the intended recipient, the program hires contractors to deliver the package directly to the school. The issue is that the solar suitcase can fetch a high price on the black market. To prevent theft, the program has to compensate the contractors with a fee that is higher than the system’s market value, payable upon delivery.  After traveling nearly 10,000 miles from a high school classroom in a small, agricultural town in Northern California, the solar suitcase was installed in the wall of the Tanzanian dormitory. It now powers the lights that hang from the beams between the rows of bunk beds. The suitcase also includes two ports where cell phones and laptops can be charged.  This new light and energy source will change how the school runs in ways ranging from mundane to vital. With the new solar lights the students and teachers will be able to extend academics past daylight hours. Now students can read or study in their dormitory before sleeping. The new energy system will also give them a way to charge phones and communicate with families in the case of an emergency. Challender hopes that this program will continue after his retirement. For more information about We Share Solar, visit https://wecaresolar.org/about/we-share/.]]>

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