What do you do when your garden is too cold to cultivate in the winter? You warm it up, of course. That is exactly what Gatewood Kids & Company students learned while building a solar panel.
The students and their Kids & Company supervisor, Kara Wattunen, submitted their functioning solar recycled panel design to the Innovative Problem Solving Showcase and took home the top award – the Innovative Garden of the Year. They were presented with the honor at the Minnesota School Yard Garden Conference, which was held at the Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, Minn. on March 3.
The idea to build a solar panel came from something simple: looking outside. Kara Wattunen, Gatewood Kids & Company supervisor and outdoor enthusiast, challenges her students to be problem solvers. When they began to think of ways to grow their love of gardening well into the winter months, they wanted to go solar.
“We started to think of ways of how to warm up the garden outside all year long,” Wattunen said. “We had built ‘trash bag green houses’ last year out of PVC pipes and school trash bags. So working with the ideas of the past, we knew we had to create a heating element.”
But a traditional heater near trash bags, Wattunen said, wouldn’t be very safe. Students had to think outside of the box, and an idea from one of her fourth-grade students to build a solar panel was the perfect solution. It had to be budget friendly and resource friendly. Wattunen said her students researched materials, looked up how others created simple solar panels, and put together a plan.
“We began to look for a storm door to use as the front glass,” she said. “We knew we also needed a small bit of insulation, as well as a lot of cans. After finding a door and having families bring in their recycling, we had enough recycled materials to go forward and construct the panel.”
The cost was minimal, as the only item Wattunen needed to purchase was a few two-by-four pieces of plywood. To create the heat collection element, students created tower structures out of the cans and spray painted them black to absorb heat. The box was constructed using plywood and the storm door was sealed to the wood. Once enough towers were built, they were assembled in the box.
“We also drilled a hole in the top of the box,” Wattunen said. “This is where we are attaching a hose, so that when the box fills with heat, it will rise and only escape through the hose, which will be inserted into our ‘trash bag greenhouses.’”
This STEM-focused project is teaching students about green technology and showing them how easy it can be to reduce their own carbon footprints.
“In our room, this is just another fun project that happens to be geared at sustainability,” Wattunen said. “It shows them that there can be many different avenues to help the environment in addition to just going and picking up garbage. They see the same everyday items and realize that each thing in life has much more than just a one-time use.”
This is the second year in a row that Gatewood has earned the top award. Last year, their recycled hydroponic garden also won in the same category.