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What's Up in the Environment?
overview | PROCEDURES

  Solar Cars

Step 1 - State the Problem
Step 2 - Research, and Hypothesize or Predict
Step 3 - Plan Experiment and Gather Data
Step 4 - Analyze the Data and Make a Conclusion
Step 5 - Take Action
Step 6 - Assessment

Step 1 - State the ProblemMore information about this step

Introductory activity: the air pollution problem

In order to understand the role that solar cars play in improving the environment, it is helpful for students to examine how cars, and burning fossil fuels, contribute to the air pollution problem. Have your students get a general sense of the problem by researching the following questions:

  • What are the main sources of air pollution?

  • What effect does air pollution have on the environment?

  • How do different kinds of energy consumption impact air pollution?

Student groups can use the Web sites listed below, in addition to the WHAT'S UP IN THE ENVIRONMENT video or AIR video clip to find their answers. Once research is complete, they should present their findings either as a written report, Web page, or PowerPoint presentation. Make sure to save these presentations, so that groups can use them, and other project work, to complete their final assessment.

Resources for step 1

Materials needed

  • Access to the Internet on at least one computer (optional)
  • Power Point (optional)
  • WHAT'S UP IN THE ENVIRONMENT video (optional)

Teacher tool Web sites

Bookmark these Web sites for student research

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Step 2 - Research, and Hypothesize or PredictMore information about this step

Research solar energy

Have students extend their knowledge by researching some general facts about solar energy and its impact on their community. Student groups should develop a set of research questions about solar energy, or use the following questions:

  • How does solar energy work? Draw a diagram.

  • How much power does a solar cell produce?

  • How is solar energy converted to electricity to run a car?

  • How might solar power improve the environment?

  • How widely is it used? (Investigate the practicalities of solar energy, like the amount of sun needed to generate a certain amount of energy - also the costs involved with this, and public attitudes towards solar power.)

  • Why aren't solar cars used more?

  • What are some of the most successful models of solar cars?

Read about solar energy using the Web sites listed below. Talk to environmentalists to find out more.

Optional activity

On a sunny day, hook up a solar cell to a motor with a propeller of a spinner. Count how many times the propeller spins in a minute. Perform the experiment three times-- at 9 AM, 12 PM, and 3 PM.


Using all your research, create a hypothesis for this question: What are some of the challenges involved with using solar energy to power a car, and how can they be overcome? Specifically, consider:

  • Is solar power a viable energy alternative?

  • What might be some of the pros and cons of relying on solar energy as a primary source of energy for a car?

  • What is the best way to build a solar car?

Resources for step 2

Materials needed

  • Solar panel (optional)
  • Motor with propeller (optional)

Teacher tool Web sites

Bookmark these Web sites for student research

  • National Renewable Energy Laboratory
    This site provides an overview of many different kinds of renewable energy sources, including solar energy.

  • National Resources Defense Council
    The National Resources Defense Council works to hold the government and other agencies to strict pollution standards and encourages the enforcement of environmentally friendly technologies.

  • Clean Solar Energy
    EPA's global energy site includes a list of resources that tout the benefits of using solar energy technologies.

  • Explorer's Club: Ask EPA
    If students have an environmental question, they can visit this Web site--sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency--and have their questions answered within 15 days.

  • The U.S. Department of Energy's National Junior Solar Sprint Web Site
    This site includes several links with information about solar energy and model solar cars, as well as activities for learning about solar power.
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Step 3 - Plan Experiment and Gather DataMore information about this step

Now have student groups test the hypothesis they made by designing, building, and testing a working solar car based on their predictions in Step 2. Begin by:

  • Drawing up a specific design for the solar car. They should also have a step-by-step instruction for building the car. They should experiment with different ways of connecting gears, pulleys, or anything else you can think of to get solar power to the wheels of your car.

  • Then collect car parts. Either use a kit purchased from a hobby shop or from the Web site listed below, or have students research and find necessary parts from old motorized toys and appliances.

  • Build the car according to plan. If the cars don't work initially, have students analyze why they're not working.

  • Once all cars are working, set up a track outside (the track can be any length you choose). Time the cars to see how fast they can travel the length of the track.

  • After initial testing, have students brainstorm ways that they can improve their car's design.

  • Have students make one change in the car's design and go back to the track to test the car's new speed. Remind them to make sure to do the test at the same time of day, when the angle of the sun is the same.

  • Make as many improvements as you feel are necessary, testing them each time.

Resources for step 3

Materials needed

  • Parts to build a solar car
  • Materials to mark off a race track
  • Timer

Teacher tool Web sites

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Step 4 - Analyze the Data and Make a Conclusion  More information about this step

Have students draw a diagram of their final solar car, labeling each part. Encourage them to write a description of how the car works, and how each of the design changes made improved the performance of the car. They should also include the information about how fast the car traveled after each design change. What were some of difficulties faced in building and improving the performance of each car? Students should use their research and the results of experiment to draw conclusions about how solar cars can be used to replace gas-powered cars. They should summarize their findings and present them to the class as a report, PowerPoint presentation, or Web page.

Resources for step 4

Materials needed

  • Power Point (optional)

Teacher tool Web sites

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Step 5 - Take ActionMore information about this step

As a class, you can enter one or all the cars in the Junior Solar Sprint race sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy! These races are held at 83 sites located in 26 states. Check the Web site for a schedule of competition dates and information about how to host your own event. Whether you are holding your own event or attending an event held by another school, send letters to local TV stations, newspapers, and politicians to tell them about your project and the race. Urge them to attend and help publicize the need for alternative energy sources like solar power.

Resources for step 5

Materials needed

  • Access to the Internet
  • Power Point (optional)

Bookmark this Web site for student research

  • The U.S. Department of Energy's National Junior Solar Sprint Web Site
    This program offers students the opportunity to create and construct model solar powered cars and enter them in competitions.
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Step 6 - Assessment

Create a final written, PowerPoint, or Web site presentation of the entire project. The presentations can be in the form of a scrapbook, portfolio, or narrative report. They should include:

  • Any documents created while students researched, designed, and raced their cars.

  • Any images, interviews, video, or audio they may have created during the project.

  • A reflection component in which students describe what they have done, what worked or didn't work, and why.
If students choose to do a Web-based project, then just follow our guidelines, send it to us, and we'll post it on the WHAT'S UP IN THE ENVIRONMENT Web site!

Resources for step 6

Materials needed

  • Power Point (optional)
  • Access to the Internet (optional)
  • Materials for a scrapbook like glue, paper, scissors, markers, etc. (optional)

Bookmark this Web site for students

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