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By ABraxton on May 3, 2010 with 1 response

Many Hands Make Light Work – HS Students Engage in Solar Research

Postdoc Bryce Sadtler, grad student James McKone, and grad student Jillian Dempsey give a lunchtime presentation at John Muir High School in Pasadena.

Caltech researchers, determined to unearth an inexpensive method for sunlight-energy conversion, have added an underutilized asset in that endeavor – high school students.

While there is an abundance of sunlight, the required minerals needed to harness that resource as energy is far more limited.

Finding an abundant  and viable conversion alternative requires countless hours of research. That is where Caltech’s newest resource comes in.

“We’re just one high school trying to solve the energy crisis,” Simone Sasse, a senior at Polytechnic School in Pasadena told the Whittier Daily News.

The “solar army” of researchers consists of Pasadena high school students, mentored by Caltech graduate and undergraduate researchers working with the University of Washington and funded by the National Science Foundation.  Bruce Parkinson from UW is recognized as the “general” of the “army” which has recruits from institutions across the country and in Germany.

In addition to students from Polytechnic School, Pasadena’s Blair High School and John Muir High School have contributed research assistants as well.

The young researchers have spent the better part of the past school year testing different formulas of readily available compounds from the periodic table to see which ones show the most promise.

Compound testing is a three week process.

First, the students mix solutions that they put on a glass slide. The slides are taken to Caltech and fired up in a furnace.

The next week, the students run tests on the glass slides. A computer, hooked up to a laser, measures the solutions’ efficiency in converting light from the laser into energy.

During the third week, the students analyze the results and attempt to dissect their solutions and determine why some worked better than others.  Based upon their findings, they try new formulas during the next three week cycle.

The relationship between the collegiate and high school researchers is mutually beneficial.  While the junior scientists donate time and insight toward the venture, they are blessed with an opportunity that few of their adolescent peers enjoy.

Laboratory experiments for high school students typically consist of studying compounds in manners that the anticipated results are well established.

These students are venturing into the unknown.

“They’re learning to negotiate through disappointments,” said Patty Tsai, a Caltech alumna who teaches AP chemistry at Polytechnic. “That’s a good skill to have as a human being.”

  1. By CEA on May 4, 2010 at 10:10 am

    The greatest resource for America is not the amounts of coal or newly discovered oil/gas shale deposits, but the minds of the individuals who will shape tomorrow. When defining “energy security”, we must first secure the imagination and ingenuity of those who will lead this country into future generations. Civilians, politicians, investors: all need to support the educational foundation to tackle the very serious issue of providing stable energy for society.
    Want to learn more about balanced energy for America? Visit to get involved, discover CEA’s mission and sign up for our informative newsletter.

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