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Students build solar suitcases for a refugee camp in Kenya

testing solar suitcase
Photo: James Madison University

This month, high school students in James Madison University’s Valley Scholars program will be sending some very special gifts halfway around the world. Two mobile solar power generators, known as “solar suitcases,” are headed to Kenya to provide electricity to students in a refugee camp.

The project was the focus of the program’s camp last summer, a partnership with JMU’s Center for the Advancement of Sustainable Energy (CASE), where 80 students learned about inequities in global energy access and how that affects their fellow students around the world.

“Once students have a better understanding of the problems surrounding energy access and the extent of the issue, they are then confronted with the coexisting issue of climate change,” said Remy Pangle with the Center for the Advancement of Sustainable Energy.

The challenge for students was to think about solutions that addressed both of these related problems.

“The students had to work toward ensuring access to electricity for the nearly one billion people who lack it today,” said Pangle, “while keeping climate change below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. These solution-based experiences empower students and can help to ease youth anxiety over climate change.”

For Gracie Struder, an 11th grader at Mountain View High School in Mount Jackson, Virginia, it was an eye-opening experience.

“Before the project, I never often understood or thought about what life is like for other people across the world,” she said. “However, the project brought to light the struggles millions of people face, specifically in Africa, with having little to no access to electricity. It made me realize just how fortunate I am to live in a country that has easy and constant access to electric energy.”

The students learned that over 860 million people around the world are without access to electricity, and students in those areas often study by the light of a single kerosene lantern or walk miles into town to study by streetlights. To better understand the impact of these circumstances, they immersed themselves in activities like “Study in the Dark,” where they saw what it was like to read an article by only the light of a flashlight.

The students also dug deeper into the concept of solar power and DC electricity so that they could safely and effectively assemble their solar suitcases, using kits provided by We Share Solar.

For the build, students were divided into teams: assembly engineers, quality control engineers, reporters, community relations, and artists. Each team had a set of tasks and deliverables that were essential to the deployment of the suitcase. The engineers built and tested the suitcase, the reporters documented the process and interviewed team members, the community relations team wrote a letter from the students to the recipients of the suitcase, and the artists designed and created a piece of art to be placed inside the suitcase for the recipients.

To help students feel more connected to the ones who would benefit from their work, members of JMU’s faculty and staff shared their first-hand experiences in Kenya.

Struder enjoyed working as a reporter on the project.

“I got to work behind the scenes talking and interviewing team members while also documenting the process,” she said. “I even got the opportunity to talk to multiple individuals who actively dedicate their time to finding ways to provide electricity to those who don’t have access to it. Their devotion and determination left me flabbergasted. Their words stuck with me, and still do. Overall, the project helped me realize that I can make a difference and that I don’t have to go far and beyond to make a change.”

Visit here for upcoming JMU Renewable energy summer camp information.

Learn more here about We Share Solar in the Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya.