Cal State East Bay's Solar Suitcase Program Recognized

  • BY Cal State East Bay
  • August 19, 2016

The Cal State East Bay “solar suitcase” program was recently recognized for its ingenuity in both teaching students about solar power, and helping low-income families and organizations around the world.

The award, called the California Higher Education Sustainability Conference Award for STEM Academics, is designed to highlight the role that college campuses play in advancing sustainability and recognize programs that are contributing to the educational component of the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment.

Professor Karina Garbesi and associate professor Erik Helgren piloted the physics-environmental studies hybrid course in fall 2015. The class allows students to learn about solar energy design for social impact through building stand-alone solar power and lighting systems called “solar suitcases.” The class is run in partnership with the nonprofit organization, We Share Solar, and the suitcases are sent to energy-impoverished schools and orphanages around the world. The students also share what they’re learning in workshops with local, low-income middle and high school students in the Hayward Unified School District.

Helgren said it’s these layers of learning both in the classroom and teaching to others, combined with the social impact of donating the suitcases, that made the program attractive to judges at the California Higher Education Sustainability Conference in June.

“I think it’s a really elegant and beautiful combination of Dr. Garbesi’s environmental perspective and my background in physics,” Helgren said. “We joint teach and students really appreciate the diverse perspectives from different disciplines.”

He added the class also teaches students about a practical way science can be used to solve world problems.

“There’s a powerful social justice piece to it and students get to actually see how science can be applied,” Helgren said.

Students interested in participating this fall should register for either Environmental Science 3999 or Physics 3999.