Renewable Future
Dickinson Website
By MaryAlice Bitts
July 30, 2010

Students work with donated solar panels during a hands-on lab at the Dickinson College Farm.

Dickinson students learn about solar energy in dynamic ways, thanks to engineering-sample solar panels donated through a BP Solar Module program for nonprofits and educational institutions.

Since the first shipment of panels arrived on campus in 2006, students have worked on six solar-panel projects at the Dickinson College Farm and have constructed a panel stand/charging station. And last year, one pioneering scholar even created a solar-powered vehicle.

Solar smoothie, anyone? 

At the Dickinson College Farm, environmental-science students have worked on systems to power the property’s yurts and have observed the use of solar-panel laminates in a water-pump system.

Another student group designed, created and installed a mobile solar-demo kit. Dubbed Solar Steve, the kit was a popular draw at the college’s educational eco-fair, EarthFest. “The students used it to power a radio and a blender for solar smoothies,” explained Assistant Farm Manager Matt Steiman, who has led several solar-panel projects. “It was a big hit.”

Last spring, Steiman held a photovoltaics (PV) lab at the farm for 75 students. Many of them had no prior exposure to solar technology, but by the end of the lab, they understood how to take readings of open-circuit voltage and short-circuit currents. They also could evaluate how the amount of sun exposure and the angle of the sun can affect production.

Solar-panel technology has lit up on-campus classes, as well. Last year, students in a hands-on, project-centered physics course led by Hans Pfister, associate professor of physics, built a stand for a PV panel. When not used in a class, the panel is repurposed as a solar-charging station for iPods, cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices.

Sparking inspiration, passion 

One of Pfister and Steiman’s former students, Sam Wheeler ’10, took the student projects a step further. He used three panels to construct a solar-powered electric car, the Solar Wheeler, as part of his summer internship last year.

Wheeler, then a physics major and student-worker at the college’s biodiesel plant, worked with Steiman to convert the former golf cart into a vehicle with a solar-paneled roof and a bank of rechargeable batteries. College Farm student-workers and staff use the vehicle to transport produce and equipment, as well as farm-tour visitors who are unable to walk the length of the property.

“Without the donation of the solar panels to the College Farm, the Solar Wheeler could not have been realized,” said Wheeler, who is pursuing a graduate degree at Lehigh University, where he is studying ways to use solar cells to efficiently split water and produce hydrogen gas. “The project further bolstered my decision to aspire for a career which engages the world through science.”