Empowering the next generation of change makers

Tacoma middle school solar project engages students in renewable energy and sustainability

The second largest solar array in the City of Tacoma isn’t in a massive field powering industrial facilities. It’s on the Hilltop Heritage Middle School roof, saving the school $5,000 per year on energy costs.

Watts Up plaque.
But the Watts Up! Solar Project didn’t start as a way to save the school money. Instead, it grew from three passionate middle school science students who were empowered to explore pressing topics like renewable energy, sustainability, and climate change. The process of garnering support for the project, assessing the feasibility of the installation, and finding funds for the investment was all student-led.

On Earth Day, Hilltop Heritage Middle School’s Mrs. Kathy Hall and current students in her science class held a groundbreaking ceremony for the solar project (four years in the making!). Before and after the speeches, students, teachers, and attendees checked out the creative posters students made, joined a solar project tour and treasure hunt, and visited community group tables. Many of the posters showcased the various lifecycle stages for different consumer products, like toothbrushes and toilet paper.

Lifecycle of toilet paper poster.
Together, the solar array effort and class projects foster student interest in renewable energy, lifecycle thinking, and sustainable design. The Earth Day event celebrated students who are asking critical questions about society — including the challenging ones, like how buildings are powered and how everyday products are made.

“This project’s importance cannot be measured in dollar values. The real value is in the number of people it inspired and continues to inspire, and in the number of students it has taught and continues to teach,” said Gwen Newport, one of Mrs. Hall’s former students who initiated the Watts Up! Solar Project.

Lifecycle of a toothbrush poster.
Dana Coggon, Executive Director of Pierce County Conservation District and one of the speakers at the event, was so moved by the student’s efforts that she installed solar panels on her own home. “You planted this seed and it is growing into a tree,” Coggon noted.

Staff from Ecology’s Hazardous Waste and Toxics Reduction program attended the Earth Day event. We left inspired and reenergized by the next generation of change makers — both former and current students and teachers — who showed such a passion for the issues we work on every day.

Teachers looking for new ways to incorporate sustainable design into their classroom can attend our Green Chemistry trainings, like Mrs. Hall did! To learn more about the solar array, watch the Watts Up! Solar Project video.