Edition 1: May 2018

Hello Science Educators

This is the first edition of the STEM Educators Newsletter. Here is what is included in this issue:

Free classroom services and materials

Science highlight reading

Ready- to- go lesson plans


Educational Programs

There are several educational services that we can provide you free of charge.

  • Classroom, School, and Community Visits. You can sign up for a visit from our Clean Energy Ambassadors or Materials Ambassadors. These graduate and undergrad students from CEI and MEM-C conduct activities like solar car races at your school STEM fair or lead a classroom workshop with hands-on activities for 4th-12th grades.

Gabriella Tosado at Hazel Wolf SchoolGabriella Tosado at Hazel Wolf School

  • Lab Visits. We sponsor small groups of middle and high school students to visit our labs at UW to see research in action. Tours usually start with a science presentation, a walk around the labs and instrumentation, and sometime include a hands-on activity. Sign up for a tour using the Clean Energy Ambassadors signup link.
  • Lesson Plans. We are continually developing new lessons and demonstrations that you can download and modify as you need. The goal is to translate current research topics and associated STEM skills into ready-to-use curriculum.  See “Science Highlights” and “Solar Circuits” documents below.
  • SunDawg Bags. This baggie contains several mini solar cars, lesson plan cards, and materials to conduct investigations. We have handed hundreds of these to teachers we meet at outreach events. Sign up to receive a free SunDawg bag or Solar Exploration Kit.

  • Summer Programs for Undergraduates. We manage paid summer research experiences for undergraduates (REUs). Clean Energy Bridge to Research focuses on freshmen and sophomores from gateway institutions such as community and tribal colleges. MEM-C REU focuses on Veterans and all under-represented groups. In both programs, students are embedded in labs for the summer and conduct high-quality, authentic research.
  • Research Experience for Teachers (RET). A summer program that places community college or high / middle school teachers in labs for a 4 to 6 week period. The goal is for teachers to generate research-inspired curriculum for their classrooms.
  • Transfer Summer UW students. Under-represented students who are transferring to the UW may apply for the Clean Energy ALVA or MEM-C ALVA summer program before their first fall quarter. They receive enrichment in chemistry and math and conduct research in our labs.

Science Highlights Student Reading


Flexible solar cells
(download a print version)
Have you ever seen a solar panel on a house or building? Solar panels produce electricity from sunlight— this is also called photovoltaics. Solar-generated electricity is one non-polluting solution that may help reduce our CO2 emissions and mitigate climate change.

Silicon solar panel on UW dorm roof


Most solar panels today are made with hundreds of silicon cells. These glass-like cells are durable and efficient, but they are also brittle and expensive to produce. Chemists and materials scientists have developed new chemicals that trap light to generate electricity. These chemicals can be printed as thin films on plastic sheets or thin metal films creating a flexible solar cell. Someday, inexpensive solar cells may be applied as a flexible roofing material or window covering. Imagine every surface of a building acting as a solar collector!

Plastic solar cell


The UW Washington Clean Energy Testbeds has a large roll-to-roll printer which can print solar cells by the meter. It also has a laboratory to test the sheets they create. Efficiency is how much electrical energy produced by a solar cell divided by how much light energy hits the cell. Researchers are trying the make these cells more efficient to make sure the sheet can survive exposure to intense sunlight, oxygen, water, and heat. Once engineers and chemists solve these challenges, entrepreneurs can start new businesses using this technology to print solar cells.

Devin MacKenzie demonstrates a
plastic solar cell printer.

Engineering is a team effort.

Check your understanding
How are flexible solar cells different from silicon solar cells?
What science and technology professions are working on flexible solar cells?
Why would it be important to increase the efficiency of solar cells?
Can you think of a new application for flexible solar cells?


Ready-to-go lesson

Solar Circuits

(download a print version)

Students can learn a lot about solar cells by playing around with simple circuits. You can build your own solar exploration kit with inexpensive materials purchased online. After you collect your materials keep them together in a box.

Mini Solar Panel- 1.5 V


  1. Take a close look at the solar cell. Notice that it has two leads: one red and one black. The recommended cell for this activity is actually a mini solar panel that has three silicon solar cells wired together and embedded in plastic. This makes the cells easy to handle without breaking.
  2. Measure the voltage produced by a single solar cell or panel. Show the students how to select the correct setting on your meter dial (usually 2V or 2000m). Notice that the wires on the cell and the leads on the meter are color coded red or positive and black for negative. Use clip leads to make it easier to keep leads connected. Place the solar cell under a bright light and then a regular room light.Have students collect data for each experiment. (Expect voltages from .5 to 1.5 volts, each cell within the panel contributes .5 volts
  3. Ask students if they are familiar with light emitting diodes (LEDs). Try connecting a single solar cell to a LED. Point out that one of the leads of the LED is longer than the other; the longer lead is the positive side and must be connected to the positive solar cell wire. Does the light go on if the cell is full sunlight or held under a bright light? (Depending on your LED and the brightness of your light, you might be successful. A single LED needs a minimum turn on voltage between 1.5 and 3 volts.) Try wiring two cells in series, red to black and then to the LED. This should give you enough voltage to turn on the LED. You might point out that an LED flashlight often has several 1.5 V batteries.
  4. Repeat your observations with a flashing LED. This led has three colors of LEDs combined in one housing and an electronic timer that turns each on and off in sequence. Try exposing more light to the panels and observe the flashing light.
  5. Attach the small electric motor to your solar panels. You might attach a plastic coffee cup lid to the motor so you can see it turning. What conditions make the motor rotate the fastest?


Science Standards at Work
We align our lessons to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) to support performance expectations like those listed below for the Solar Circuits Activity.


Make observations to provide evidence that energy can be transferred from place to place by sound, light, heat, and electric currents


Apply scientific ideas to design, test, and refine a device that converts energy from one form to another.

Notice that these expectation statements model the idea of 3 dimensional learning that combine three or more foundation elements.
To fulfill these expectations students need to use scientific and engineering practices (SEP), and understand Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI) and Cross cutting concepts (CCC).

Science and engineering practice (SEP)

Planning and Carrying Out Investigations: Planning and carrying out investigations to answer questions or test solutions to problems in 3–5 builds on K–2 experiences and progresses to include investigations that control variables and provide evidence to support explanations or design solutions. 

Make observations to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence for an explanation of a phenomenon or test a design solution.

Disciplinary Core Ideas  (DCIs)

PS3.A: Definitions of Energy    Energy can be moved from place to place by moving objects through sound, light, or electric currents.

PS3.B: Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer-

  • Light also transfers energy from place to place.
  • Energy can also be transferred from place to place by electric currents, which can then be used locally to produce motion, sound, heat, or light. The currents may have been produced to begin with by transforming the energy of motion into electrical energy.

Crosscutting Concepts

Energy and Matter:     Energy can be transferred in various ways and between objects.

Hands-on activities are naturally engaging but you can increase their impact using guided discussion. Think about questions likes these to help surface the big ideas in NGSS that we are hoping to build.

  1. In your investigation how did you assure that your measurements were accurate and reliable?
  2. What problems did you encounter with your measurements?Where did the energy start from and where did end up?
  3. What forms of energy were used in each step of your experiment? Make an energy flow chart.
  4. What conditions are needed to make a complete circuit?How is energy transferred from one form to another?
  5. What are other examples of energy transfer that you see everyday?
  6. Can you design a simple invention using these materials?

About the Institutes / Center

This newsletter is a joint effort of the University of Washington’s (UW’s) Clean Energy Institute (CEI) and Molecular Engineering Materials Center (MEM-C).

CEI was founded in 2013 with funds from the state of Washington. Its mission is to accelerate the adoption of a scalable clean energy future that will improve the health and economy of our state, nation, and world.
To accomplish this mission, CEI supports the advancement of next-generation solar energy and battery materials and devices, as well as their integration with systems and the grid. The institute creates the ideas and educates the people needed to generate these innovations, while facilitating the pathways to bring them to market.
CEI consists of UW faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates from Chemistry, Physics, Chemical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering. In addition to supporting innovative research, CEI conducts educational outreach across Washington.

MEM-C is a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Materials Research Science and Engineering Center at UW and involves many CEI faculty and students. Its research focus is engineering energy and electronic materials that are one atom thick, and creating light-trapping nanostructures, such as quantum dots. MEM-C students undertake broader impacts projects and outreach visits.

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