Solar City: A Collaborative STEM Project

During the 2017-18 school year, one of my colleagues, Merrimac Forsyth, and I created a solar city with a solar panel circuit, a river flowing from a mountain, 3D printed houses designed by our students, and an aquaponic flower garden attached to it in Ms. Forsyth's third grade classroom. Through the progression of our project, students enthusiastically added bridges, roads, lights for their houses, and a train.

The solar city symbolized more than a “train track” or “art project.” Our students were in the rollercoaster of events, such as sprinting to the restroom to get handfuls of paper towels and toilet paper due to the aquaponics flower garden leaking to receiving positive feedback from Georgia teachers and administrators during our quarterly STEM Showcases, to smelling saw dust from freshly-cut wood while Ms. Forsyth was teaching on the SMART board.

All students participated in the project regardless of test scores or being the “quietest of the quiet.” Friendships among the students were made when they were holding teacher-cut boards while the other students were drilling the holes, putting in the screws, using a chalk line, and painting the mountain. Even though third grade math and science standards were addressed through traditional and unconventional methods, students were not given a choice of which kit to order on the Internet and then use professionally-written directions. They had to correctly use all four mathematical operations, fractions, and measurement and then collaboratively design their solar city.

The most important long-term benefit from the solar city project was for the students to face failure themselves and witness their teachers experiencing it as well. Despite multiple setbacks, everyone overcame them as a team through trial and error and working hard until the project was finished on a goal-orientated time line.

As a teacher, I try to be a role model for my students inside and outside my school. Before the solar city project began, I shared my personal story of the successes and failures of my number line to 10,000,000 and other math manipulatives that address the standards of fractions, decimals, elapsed time, weight, capacity, and money that I invented about six years ago. I stressed that I sought the best sales person, writer, business mind, and tech savvy person I knew. I emphasized to them that it is appropriate for them, including adults, to seek assistance and advice as well as take risks.

For additional information about the solar city and to see some the math teaching strategies that my students used to complete the solar city project, please visit to see an Easter Seals Indianapolis demonstration video.

Jim Franklin is an inclusion special education teacher from Elm Street Elementary in Rome, GA. He has the privilege of working the 21st STEM certified school in the state of Georgia. With 20 years of experience teaching at the elementary and middle school levels, he strongly believes all students can learn. One of his personal goals is to teach students when they do not know when they are being taught.