Sun Tribe Solar Wins C3 Climate Award on the Strength of Solar Empowered Schools Initiative
Last week, Sun Tribe Solar was honored as the recipient of the Youth Empowerment climate award from the Community Climate Collaborative! This award recognizes the impact Solar Empowered Schools, Sun Tribe’s education initiative, has had on the schools and communities we serve.
To celebrate the occasion, we caught up with Meghan Milo to learn more about Solar Empowered Schools. Meghan joined Sun Tribe as Education Outreach Lead (a full-time position that may be the FIRST of its kind in the renewable industry) in order to expand on the company’s commitment to helping schools access the enormous hands-on learning potential that a solar energy system could provide students.
Building from5+ years’ experience teaching at Albemarle County Public Schools, Meghan ran a task force within the company to create a unique digital dashboard and accompanying cache of lesson plans, all of which would become a vehicle for students to learn about science, math, technology, the environment, policy, and renewable energy.
When Sun Tribe launched its Solar Empowered Schools initiative in early 2022, Meghan led the charge, helping to develop a website and curated curriculum library designed to give educators and students all the tools they need to use solar as a vehicle for STEM educational learning. For example, the Solar Empowered Schools hosts quarterly teacher training workshops and visits classrooms to deliver hands-on, inquiry-based solar lessons.
Since its introduction, the initiative has provided hands-on experiences to over 325 Virginia students and 150 Virginia educators, and it isn’t showing signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Read on for the full interview, where we talk about sitting on the VA Board of Education’s Advisory Committee, the Energy Education Taskforce, and Solar Empowered Schools’ greatest success stories this year.
First off, I want to learn a little about you. I know you come from a background as a math teacher –how did you eventually find your way to Sun Tribe?
Before I was a math teacher, I worked for an engineering firm where I concentrated on energy awareness, utility bill analysis, and also some marketing. Eventually I realized that in that role (my first “real job” out of college), the part I liked best about the job were the projects where I would get instant feedback.
I’ve always loved teaching. I used to tutor in high-school, so I decided to become a sixth grade math teacher. I taught for over five years, and that was really wonderful for many different reasons. I still love teaching. I think I could do it every day for the rest of my life and still want to get better.
As for what led me to Sun Tribe, I had twins during a pandemic. When I was finishing up my maternity leave and thinking about reentering a teaching role, that pause in my work gave me a bit of a zoom-out perspective. It turns out that the skills from both the engineering firm and my teaching background made for a perfect fit for the role, which requires some technical expertise and also a knowledge of good teaching practices, plus a perspective of what it’s really like to be inside the classroom. I couldn’t have written the job description to be a more perfect fit, and I’m so thankful that the timing worked out.
This is the only position of its kind that I know about, so it’s a special thing that Sun Tribe has committed to: really doing the education part.
You joined Sun Tribe as an as ‘Education Outreach Lead,’ which is a super unique position. What was the first step you took when you joined the Sun Tribe team? Was there a “plan of attack,” so to speak?
The first thing I tried to do was understand what schools really wanted, and what they would actually use. The thing is, that’s different for each individual school. Every teacher is different, and every school culture is different. I realized that we were going to have to take a customized approach.
One thing that we’ve identified and have tried to solve, at least in version 1.0, is a student-friendly energy dashboard. There’s a proliferation of dashboards that are basically designed for energy managers, but after listening to feedback from teachers we committed to make one that students could interpret and that would be interesting to them.
Sun Tribe is in a unique position to be able to make things customized to our client partners about their solar arrays. We worked on lessons, like having students make infographic posters about solar at their schools, and researching its environmental impact versus carbon-emitting fuels. And making those lessons ready-to-go and aligned with standards so that a teacher can pick it up and just run them was a huge step.
Tell me a little bit more about the Solar Empowered Schools initiative. Where did this come from, and in a technical sense, how did you go about actually getting the project off the ground?
At first, we thought our educational initiative was going to be only a simple connection-making effort with one organization. Then when we realized the scale of educational opportunities, and how much work there is to be done,we decided we wanted a name for all of this work that we’re doing under the educational umbrella. We decided to brand this initiative Solar Empowered Schools so that it had room to grow, and also so that we might be able to work with schools that don’t have solar yet. There’s a lot of value to doing solar education as a way to advocate for solar in a school district.
At first, I had conversations with teachers and would follow up by sending them a bunch of links of things that I had found [related to solar energy education]. I soon realized there’d be a lot of benefit in putting all the best things that I’ve found into a curated curriculum library. If you’re an elementary school teacher, you want to be able to find something that’s tailored to what you do quickly, because teachers do not have enough time in their day. It turned out to be a great library and baseline resource.
People look at solar and think “renewable energy learning = good,” but I know you have a more nuanced approach to thinking about this kind of thing. Your bio mentioned that you’ve “mastered the art of utility billing rates to help public sector leaders understand their energy use.” Are these the conversations you’re normally having with school boards? Who are the key individuals to talk to to get the ball rolling?
The financial side is what gets the ‘Yes’ votes and the environmental and educational benefits are what makes everybody proud about the ‘Yes’ votes. If we could only offer one benefit and not the others, then it would be a much tougher sell. But the fact that we can offer predictable electricity rates for the next 25 – 35 years that will contribute to a more resilient and cleaner energy future, and provide authentic educational opportunities that connect to pretty much every type of subject area in middle school and high school in a way that prepares kids to think about their energy future … I think that’s what makes everybody feel good about the ‘Yes’ decision.
I think we’re starting to see opportunities where it can go the other way too. For example, we have an array in Shenandoah County that started as a student research project. Some students did a research project and they looked into the feed ability at the school, got a lot of enthusiasm from the school board, and that’s how Sun Tribe Solar got involved. So these things can really can happen at a grassroots level.
Another really neat story that I heard recently: I was doing a teacher training at the Chesapeake Bay Regional Governor’s School, and as soon as we walked in the room, one of the teachers pulled us aside and said, “Hey, thanks so much. We live in Middlesex County and my son made signs about the solar array at the elementary school for his Eagle Scout Project.” She said, “In working on that project with him and doing some research through that project, I went from being skeptical about solar to really becoming an advocate for it. So thank you so much.”
It’s a great honor. It goes back to what we were talking about before where Virginia has this new energy pathway. In addition, the Virginia Department of Education is looking for industry input to be able to help guide the development of these programs throughout the Commonwealth. So it’s really neat because I get to be an active part in determining how these courses will be taught, and guiding what the most important things to teach are. For example, we’re able to give perspective on the fact that solar training is not just about turning wrenches. There are a lot of solar jobs that are mostly behind a computer, and they involve a lot of engineering and a lot of mathematical modeling and computer analysis. So guiding that conversation of what types of skills people will need for all different types of jobs in this industry is what I’m most excited about.
What is the CTE Energy Education Taskforce, and how have you seen that affect the VA school systems?
There’s a little bit of overlap, but this is also something I’m really excited about, and something we were able to initiate as a founding member. In conversations with schools, we realized there’s this great opportunity to be able to support CTE programs. Right now, there’s a very big gap between the energy pathway standards and what you can actually use in your classroom. So it’s creating a network for educators, people who are curriculum developers for this state and industry to get together and share what it is that they’re doing, what’s going well, and what they need.
For example, in Louisa County, they have solar on all of their schools or solar in development on all of their schools. They’re really excited about training their students for solar careers. With our help, and with the help of Crux Solar (a friend of ours), they’ve built, in their construction class, a mini house, and it’s unfinished inside. So they’ll teach wiring and electricity in there. And then there’s a ground-mounted array with nine modules outside that students will install and then take down each semester so that they can be repeated. They’ll learn all about the interconnection between the building and the solar panels. This is something that they, we, invented from scratch. Wouldn’t it be cool if they could share what they’re doing to serve as a model or an idea for other schools? Again, what we’re trying to do is make those connections. It’s establishing a network – and acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers yet- but if we work together to share best practices and support each other, we can make a lot of headway together.
My biggest goal for next year is to have a couple different models of what a renewable energy training lab would look like, and to have exact specs of where can you buy this equipment, how much do you need to put in your budget for it, etc. And then also where you can get your teachers trained. Really just connecting those basic dots.
Solar Empowered Schools is working towards making interdisciplinary and student-centered renewable energy education become embedded in curriculum. It hits all of the goals of what we want for our students. It challenges them to think about complex problems, engage in really meaningful problem-solving, and show persistence and critical thinking. It encourages them to think about local connections and global impact. And it’s something that is going to affect them in their future, whether it’s through their jobs, or in terms of what their world and environment looks like. There’s just so many connections. Ideally, I want Solar Empowered Schools to move the needle so that instead of one science class teaching one lesson about solar in isolation (which is still a good start), we move towards a culture of education where this is kind of an ongoing theme that is revisited. Even in social studies when we talk about policy, or in math when we’re interpreting solar energy graphs, or in science when we’re talking about greenhouse gases. There’s just so much here, and it’s SO real world, and especially if schools have solar on their buildings it is RIGHT THERE. And it really hits home. The big picture is just to keep moving forward to make renewable energy education something that is just built in, and something that everybody gets to learn, too.
Last question: Are there any specific success stories you could tell me about? Middle schoolers or even high-schoolers whose interests in some kind of tech-related career might have been sparked by these initiatives?
I do have one last story, which was an experience with Fluvanna Middle School, which was maybe our biggest win yet. We had connected with a fifth-grade science teacher who asked us if we could come and do something solar-related for her students. We ended up being able to do a solar energy dashboard lesson for every class in the fifth grade, and those students learned about solar energy when it’s produced and how it works by looking at solar energy graphs from their school. After that, they researched the environmental impacts of their school’s solar array, and they created infographic posters to display in their school. They’re hanging up on the wall at Sun Tribe right now. But that’s not where it ends.
During one of the breaks between classes, I introduced the media science teacher to what’s called the Kid Wind Project, which is a solar and wind challenge that students from schools all over the nation can participate in. Within a couple of days, he had gotten six teams together to participate in the regional competition at James Madison University, where the competition was held. They had three wind teams and three solar teams, and they got SO excited. They won a couple of awards, advanced to the state competition, and then won awards there too. Just seeing that momentum and then hearing the teacher and students talk about what want to do this year (making it grade-wide or school-wide) – it’s an example of how that spark can really spread very quickly once you get things going.