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Teaching and Learning about Solar Energy in Ghana


The University of Rochester’s NSF sponsored Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship on Distributed Renewable Energy has made significant advancement over the past year in outreach for broader impact of the program. The pioneer cohort of IGERT trainees traveled to Kumasi, Ghana, Africa to attend the International Solar Energy Experts (I-SEE) conference at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi. After presenting their research work at the conference, our students spent time teaching about solar energy at several local primary schools. The classroom demonstrations were developed by the IGERT students based on the “optics suitcase” teaching tool from the Optical Society of America (OSA). The “optics suitcase” is a collection of self contained and low cost demonstration modules developed and supported by the OSA Foundation to enhance youth education in the field of optics. Our IGERT trainees used some of the existing modules and added to them according to their own disciplines, in order to focus on solar energy. In doing so, they integrated their different fields into a coherent presentation.

The approach has been a remarkable success. The first benefit is directly to the education of our IGERT trainees as they learned how to communicate scientific principles to an audience of nonexperts in a way that most PhD students never have the opportunity to do. The IGERT students found the process rewarding and stimulating. In our 2012 evaluation report, one IGERT trainee referred to the Ghana experience as the best part of the program, and another went so far as to say “it was probably the best experience of my life, so far.” The second benefit of this outreach activity is that it is a sustainable model because it can be easily transferred to any location, including our local schools. By focusing on portable, low cost modules that do not require any existing infrastructure (like additional chemicals, electricity, hazardous waste disposal, etc.), the scientific concepts can be taught virtually anywhere in the world. Two of our pioneer cohort were so enthusiastic about the Ghana experience that they are now teaching our short course that prepares the second group of IGERT trainees for working and teaching in Africa. Part of the short course will involve developing and refining teaching modules to be taken to Ghana. We expect that the “suitcase” will be improved and expanded over the course of the IGERT program to include solar thermal, photovoltaics, solar hydrogen production, and fuel cell demonstrations, all of which can be done using only sunlight and clean water.

Address Goals

The NSF funded Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship at the University of Rochester has pulled the graduate students out – out of their labs, out of their departments, out of their disciplines and even a bit out of their comfort zone. The result is a pioneer cohort of trainees with a significantly value-added education experience. These students had an amazing experience in Africa, and came back eager to share what they learned with their fellow IGERT students and also with the community at large. They have an edge, as they have successfully integrated the science of their discipline with complementary disciplines. In addition, they can do this in a culture very different from their own, and under conditions they never imagined.