STEM Physics Students Think Solar
Jennifer Sutton

Jan. 4, 2018 — Say NMH had unlimited funds to invest in new solar panels. Should they go on one of the hillsides at the edges of campus; on the roof of the proposed new science, math, and technology center; or on a solar carport that could shelter cars from winter weather as well as generate electricity?

Aspirational? Yes — but totally possible, according to students in NMH’s STEM Physics class, who pitched the ideas during their final exam, which was a presentation to the school’s director of plant facilities and chief advancement officer. “NMH is a big community that uses a lot of electricity,” one of the students said, “and we want to increase our reputation as an environmentally friendly school.”

Adding hundreds of solar panels to NMH’s smaller existing arrays was only part of the class’s extensive presentation. The students also recommended modifying NMH’s 113 lampposts to run on solar-powered batteries, launching a fundraising initiative that would encourage alumni to donate solar panels to the school, and increasing education — and reminders — for students about how they can limit their electricity use. Shorter showers, anyone?

The students’ presentation wrapped up a semester-long study of energy, conservation, and the technologies used in energy production, with a focus on solar power and how to make NMH’s overall electricity consumption more sustainable in the future. They did academic research, met with school administrators and facilities staff members, and walked the campus to explore what makes a productive solar-array site. “This has been a team effort on the part of the school as well as the students,” said Physics Teacher Tabatha Collins. The students dug not only into science and technology, but also into the business side of solar energy, learning about state energy audits, renewable-energy credits, and power-purchase agreements. “That’s when you get electricity from solar panels that are installed on your land, but you don’t actually own the panels,” one of the students explained.

Even though NMH has made substantial strides in recent years to reduce its institutional carbon footprint — for example, by switching from traditional fuel oil to recycled cooking oil to heat the campus — the adults in the audience agreed that the students’ research and proposals were impressive and well-focused. “A new solar array is part of a long list of very important changes we’d like to see happen on campus,” said Rick Couture, director of plant facilities. But, he added, don’t underestimate the community-education element — the shorter-shower piece of the plan. “With energy conservation, the biggest X factor is cultural change,” he said.