High School Teachers Go Back to University to Learn About Solar Cells

At 8 a.m. on a summer day, few people want to be inside a windowless classroom talking about how to evaporate aluminum, the benefits of gallium arsenide or the electrical properties of intrinsic silicon.

Electrical engineering associate professor Todd Kaiser (left) shows high school teacher Seth Hodges (center) and another student a piece of equipment in one of MSU's dust-free microfabrication laboratories during a summer 2009 master's course in solar cells

But that's just what a group of high school science teachers from across the country did last week at Montana State University. The seven teachers were enrolled in a course in solar cells, offered as part of MSU's Master of Science in Science Education program.

The teachers spent a week at MSU, attending lectures and performing experiments in MSU's Montana Microfabrication Facility, a suite of dust-free laboratories where scientists use high-tech furnaces to assemble tiny, complex electronic devices out of silicon and other materials.

Todd Kaiser, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, taught the solar cell course, which was offered for the first time this summer.

One semiconductor device that can be manufactured inside the microfabrication facility is a solar cell, a component that converts sunlight into electricity. Guided by Kaiser, the teachers each created their own solar cell and learned the science behind them -- all while picking up lessons to take home to their high school students.

Kaiser said that while the learning curve for the course was steep, the teachers enjoyed the course, especially the opportunity to get into the laboratory and put their science lessons to work.

"They actually wanted to know more about electricity," Kaiser said. "And they wanted even more interaction with the lab, testing the solar cells and doing experimental measurements."

Ray Guest, a chemistry and physics teacher at Missoula's Loyola Sacred Heart High School, said he was excited because the course covered topics his students are already excited to learn about.

"Alternative energy always makes for good discussion and debate in the classroom, but I'm limited in my knowledge and understanding of the science behind it," he said.

Guest said the course helped him make sense of the chemistry and physics behind solar cells, which will help him better explain things to his students.

Seth Hodges, a geology, earth science, physics and economics teacher from Window Rock, Ariz., on the Navajo Reservation, said alternative energy is a hot topic on the reservation; and many of his students are asking questions about it.

"What this class does is make me better prepared to answer their questions and get them interested," he said.

Hodges, who travels to Bozeman for summer classes, said he values the chance to talk with other teachers while at MSU, as well as the opportunity to put on a clean-suit and go into the microfabrication lab.

"The thing I love about it is, now I can talk about what it was like in there," Hodges said. "It gives me something to relate to the kids."

In addition to the credit toward their master's degrees, the teachers left MSU with the working solar cells they created, as well as the resources to teach students at their schools about how the cells work, Kaiser said.

Giving teachers the laboratory experience lets them pass on lessons in applied science to their students, which is important to building interest in engineering, Kaiser said.

"So often students see that there's this chemistry and physics and they want to see some sort of application for it," he said. "That's what engineering is."

This fall, Kaiser will keep up the alternative energy trend. He'll be teaching an undergraduate course in solar power and photovoltaic systems. That course is funded by a grant from the Montana Space Grant Consortium.

"Everybody's hungry for energy, and I think these classes will help produce engineers who can meet those needs," Kaiser said.

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