A group of eighth-grade girls at Saint Patrick School in Carlisle have created a mock-up solar-powered water system that might someday have real-world applications.
Known as the “Solar Sisters,” recent graduates Sarah Dabrowski, Claire Grindle, Hayden Hall and Anna Sheaffer amassed their talents and hard work this spring, earning accolades at state and national competitions and piquing Rotary Club interests to potentially apply their project to bring clean water to third-world communities.
And it all started with a classroom lab project.
Math teacher Machele Lynch and science teacher Jay Raines introduced the project to students after attending a workshop hosted by Penn State University to invite participants to its statewide Solar Challenge. Supplied with solar panels, wires and a water pump provided by the university, Saint Patrick students formed a team for boys and one for girls, and set out to create a solar-powered project for the statewide contest.
For some students, like Claire Grindle, it was a chance to pursue interests.
“I have always enjoyed math and science class since I was younger, and I definitely think I will end up doing something in that field. I am not yet sure whether it will be more focused on engineering or chemistry, but this project has really helped me figure out what I enjoy doing,” she said.
For others, like Sarah Dabrowski, the project offered an opportunity to learn more about engineering.
“I decided to join the girls’ team because I wanted to try something I have never done before,” she said. “Engineering is not something that I am interested in, but I did enjoy learning about how different types of engineering can help the environment. I also enjoyed researching solar energy and how it affects the environment.”
The Solar Sisters combined their knowledge and talents to enter the statewide competition in April. The rules challenged them to design a solar device for the purpose of pumping water, using no more than six 2V panels on a 12x12x14-inch model of a house. Their prototype was tested for the amount of water it could pump from one container to another, using energy from the panels.
“From the very beginning of the project, the girls were very interested in the idea of creating solar energy. They took every lab seriously and did their best with each step of the project,” said Lynch. “They quickly figured out each other’s strengths, and, as the time for the state competition grew closer, they really started to find their niche.”
It paid off. At Penn State’s Solar Challenge in April, the Solar Sisters won first place with their project, and secured a spot in the national 2023 Kid Wind Challenge in Boulder, Colorado, accompanied by Lynch and Raines.
The work on the project was just beginning, though. The invitation to nationals set the girls back to nearly square-one, with an entirely new set of challenges to problem-solve and a prototype to expand exponentially before the May competition.
While the rules for the statewide competition were specific regarding the scope and number of panels, the rules for the national competition were more wide open: design a solar-powered system on a one-meter cube, using any number of solar panels, any construction and any loads.
The Solar Sisters were put to the test to increase the scope of their project and to do so in less than a month’s time.
Working together after school with the continued encouragement of Lynch and Raines, the girls expanded their project from a simple pump within a model home to a prototype that could supply water to an entire village. They doubled the number of panels from six to 12 and problem-solved ways of increasing the power for the water pump.
“When we had to adapt our project for nationals, we decided that each individual would work on a specific part of the project. This interested me because we decided basically on our own,” said Sarah. “We also found ways to be innovative, like using a binder clip to hold the water pipe on the well and pennies as conductors of the electricity.”
“The most challenging parts of scaling up our project were finding what type of circuit worked best after doubling the amount of panels we had originally used, and figuring out how to get the individual panels to fit on the village without stretching and breaking the wires,” said Hayden Hall.
“I found most of my interest in the actual circuit itself and finding out how I could produce the most energy and pump the most water using a set amount of solar panels,” she said.
Another challenge: the logistics of securing the entire project for its flight from Carlisle to Boulder.
“We had so much to pack up, from our houses to the solar panels, extra supplies, and lamps. Each one of those things was key to the success of our project, so it was truly a blessing when our box showed up at the airport,” said Anna Sheaffer.
Once in Boulder, the girls reassembled their project, rehearsed their presentation and solidified their dedication to teamwork. After successfully completing several events – including the Instant Challenge, Solar Pumping and QuizBowl – the Solar Sisters were awarded rookie-of-the-year honors and commended for their politeness, teamwork and positive spirit.
“When they announced that the Solar Sisters had won rookie of the year, we were truly so excited,” said Anna. “I was proud of each and every girl on the team for pursuing this project because it was hard work to get our project to where we had it.”
“Going into the national competition I had confidence in what we had prepared for the judging and our knowledge, but whenever you do something new you always have those nerves and thoughts about if something happens or doesn’t go your way, because you can’t control what your competitors do; you can only control what you put into your project. I can definitely say a Hail Mary was said by the Solar Sisters minutes before the judging,” she added.
“We could not have done any of this without Mrs. Lynch and Mr. Raines,” Hayden said. “They have both been by our sides throughout this whole journey. From when they drove us to the state competition to sitting with us on the plane to Boulder, they never stopped believing in us. Mr. Raines and Mrs. Lynch have given me the best school year I’ve ever had through this project and I will forever be thankful.”
Returning from Boulder to the accolades of a proud Saint Patrick School community, the Solar Sisters shared their project with the local Rotary Club, which has undertaken work on wells in third-world countries. According to Lynch, the club is connecting with one of the KidWind judges to find a location and a partner organization to turn the Solar Sisters’ prototype into a working solar well.
“I couldn’t believe that something that started out as a decision in math class turned into something that could one day help people,” Sarah said. “It feels unbelievable, and I’m so incredibly grateful that it could actually happen.”
“When I found out that the Carlisle Rotary was interested in our project…I was shocked,” said Claire. “It was such a surreal moment that something we were doing in a small town in Pennsylvania could eventually help others around the globe. Once one of the judges reached out to us after judging, it became clear that we had a chance and we could make this happen in real life. I have always had the mindset of helping others since I’ve been at Saint Pat’s and it was very exciting hearing this could come to fruition.”
The girls and their teachers are interested in seeing how their accomplishments impact future students at Saint Pat’s, which is currently building an 11,000-square-foot STEAM wing, complete with classrooms, art and music rooms, and offices.
“The STEAM wing will definitely benefit the future students of Saint Pat’s. The wing will have something for all of the students to enjoy and will be an even bigger space for future KidWind or KidSolar projects,” Claire said. “I am excited to see how they approach the competitions next year and will be cheering them on if they get to compete at nationals.”
Lynch said she and Raines hope the Solar Sisters’ success inspires other students to dream big.
“We know that not every kid will grow up to work in the STEM field, but we do hope to make them curious and more knowledgeable about the world around them,” she said.
For more information about Saint Patrick School, visit www.spscarlisle.org.
(Photos courtesy of Saint Patrick School.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness