For the past three years, District 197  middle and high school students have built “solar suitcases” that are helping youngsters in African schools continue to study and do homework even when the sun goes down.

Friendly Hills Middle School in Mendota Heights began the solar suitcases program in 2019. Through veteran teacher Katy Lynch, the school acquired several of the devices to teach students about electricity and solar energy. 

Participants in the district’s afterschool LiveGreen Club then built solar suitcases to send to schools in Africa. Lately, that includes ones serving refugees in Kenya. The California-based nonprofit We Share Solar creates and distributes the technology to schools around the United States. The program helps students learn about solar energy and how to build the devices to be sent to developing nations.

Friendly Hills was one of the first 10 schools in Minnesota to offer We Share Solar suitcases in sixth-grade classes and afterschool activities. Meghan Bernard, the district’s sustainability manager, said the program provides a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activity in classrooms and their assembly benefits students in other countries.

“An experience like this can be life-changing for students because they can see how something they do can positively impact the world,” she said.

solar suitcases
Students at Friendly Hills Middle School in Mendota Heights work on creating a solar suitcase in 2021 to be shipped overseas. The school was among the first in Minnesota to help build the devices and will be working on its sixth one this spring.

“An experience like this can be life-changing for students because they can see how something they do can positively impact the world,” said Meghan Bernard, the district’s sustainability manager.

An educational opportunity

The program is part of West Saint Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area Schools’ sustainability efforts. They include providing  100 percent of its energy needs through solar panels on school buildings and memberships in community solar gardens. In addition, Bernard said the district has LiveGreen Clubs in all of its schools, a recycling program, and has earned Energy Star certification in several of its buildings.


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We Share Solar sent a newsletter to Friendly Hills in 2021 to thank it for donating a solar suitcase to Kilifi, Kenya. It and other kits built by American students were distributed to seven Kilifi schools that had no or only limited access to electricity. With solar suitcases to help light the classrooms, students are able to study and prepare for state exams and learn about solar energy. In addition, teachers there have more time to prep for lessons and to recharge their mobile devices without having
to travel long distances.

Lynch uses solar suitcases to teach students about the importance of electricity and the gravity of the situation in the developing world. She will turn the lights off in the classroom to give them an idea of what it is like studying in the dark.

Class members create posters addressing the topic. They also read The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. It tells the story of a Malawi boy who builds a windmill out of scrap metal and bicycle parts to generate electricity for his family.

solar suitcases
Friendly Hills students test a solar suitcase during the school’s first year in the program.

Branching out

While everyone at Friendly Hills learns about solar by taking part in the school’s onsite solar suitcases, LiveGreen Club participants make the ones sent abroad. Last year, Lynch broadened the effort to include homeroom kids, many of whom live in Section 8 housing and cannot participate in afterschool activities.

After completing the suitcases, students attach them to mini-solar panels at the school to test them. Lynch said the schools in Africa do the same, connecting the suitcases to solar panels to generate electricity.

The solar suitcases cost roughly $1,100 each. Wells Fargo partnered with We Share Solar and pays for some of the equipment, Lynch said. A grant from a local foundation also helps with the cost.

More solar suitcases to be created

Friendly Hills will be making its sixth solar suitcase this spring, when students can go outside and test it. Lynch said many of the children working on them have no idea how to use hand tools, which is another learning opportunity the project offers.

“You wouldn’t believe the number of kids who’ve never held a screwdriver or wrench, or they don’t know the names of the tools,” she said. “Seeing them learning how to use basic tools and how electricity in their homes work is fun to watch.”

solar suitcases
A closeup view of the components that go into the devices.

Two Rivers also has been busy

Two Rivers High School teacher Dave Weiss found his classes enjoyed solar suitcase projects in the same way as middle schoolers. Weiss, who trained with Lynch, saw his classes build and send four suitcases abroad over the past few years. They will also be working on another this spring.

For his students, the projects offer a hands-on learning opportunity and open a window to the world.

“I think they’re struck by the stories of the students we’re building these for,” Weiss said. “They’re just impressed that they’ve been able to go beyond West Saint Paul, Eagan and Mendota Heights and do something better for someone else. They seem to take a sense of pride in that.”

Lynch sees the solar suitcase program the same way. “I think the program is excellent at just teaching them empathy and how lucky they are,” she said. “Instead of always focusing on what we don’t have, this helps them realize all the things we have living in America.”

solar suitcases
Two Rivers High School students show off solar suitcases with teacher Dave Weiss.

—Frank Jossi


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