School Walks and Car Talks

As most families do, the kids and I spend a lot of time driving from one place to the next whether it be sports or school events, but we do make it a point to either walk or bike the little over half a mile distance to or from their neighborhood school. (We try to follow the under a mile, walk or bike rule – check out this Environmental Protection Agency article for its impacts on your community.) These walks and drives offer ample time to explore little things and big questions.

Yesterday my five year old daughter joyously observed solar panels on the roofs of houses in the new developments off the highway. So many in fact that she got me thinking. I didn’t realize their use had gone up so much within our local communities in recent years. And I was impressed by her awareness of them. My youngest is always fascinated with the small panels used on school zone lights and traffic signals, but we had never really talked or explored what they mean or how they work other than “they’re for electricity.” So I guess I was a little surprised to find another one of my kids pointing them out so excitedly. My mom brain had grown to see them as a toddler roadside novelty. Then I remember a recent “Ask This Old House” episode where they demonstrated a solar panel device by SmartFlower Solar, designed to mimic a heliotropic plant (e.g. the sunflower), and we launched into the entire conversation of sunflowers and how they follow the sun. How do they do that? So many great topics to discuss with my littles!

Check out this news story about a Smartflower installation at Lavender Pond Farm in Killingworth, CT.

In some past reading I’d come to learn that research has shown plants, like us (or dare I say we, like plants…) have an internal clock. And even though they do follow the light during the day, the sunflowers reset at night to face the east before dawn so they can maximize the warmth from the sun, thus attracting more pollinators. (Read New York Times article, How Sunflowers Follow the Sun, Day After Day. If you’d like to read the more detailed research results, check out this peer-reviewed article in the publication Science.)

I also read a passage on this subject in Matthew Walker‘s book, “Why We Sleep” discussing how in 1729, a French geophysicist observed a heliotropic plant variety, specifically Mimosa pudica, whose leaves tracked the light of the sun, yet closed at night. Walker writes about how the scientist tested the internal clock theory by placing the plants in sealed boxes and found that even in total darkness, they still repeated their behaviors over the next twenty-four hour period without the aid of the sun. I can’t wait to share this info with the girls in tomorrow’s daily conversation! (Side note: I used to use creeping mimosa as a xeriscaping lawn alternative in my days before children in a more southerly region of the U.S. It’s a lovely plant with leaves truly sensitive to touch and light! Grows very low, but easy to mow over when necessary and a great pollinator food source with a constant blooming of delicate purple puffs.)

Our recent hover fly buzz led them to find a favorite book of theirs (“Simon & Schuster Children’s Guide to Insects and Spiders”) and tote it in the car, where on page 47 they looked up an entry on our new discovery. Although the illustration is not a good representation of what we have seen in photographs or our garden, the description is a good one. My eldest just loves that, unlike other flies out there, it can fly backwards, and that there are over 6,000 species!

If you’re interested in reading more about the amazing SmartFlower, this is a cool article featuring a video demo of its installment in Berlin and photographs in various U.S. locations: Flower-shaped Solar Panel Now Sold in the US by Megan Barber for Just imagine if every public school and government property installed one of these or its like, let alone our endless sprawl of subdivided communities. Quite the sculptural, new age statement!

And here’s an article from Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences discussing a recent publication by the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters about the benefits of going solar on school campuses nationwide in order to save money on the exhaustive energy expenditures that come with running a campus, especially in places with the most sun exposure: What Happens When Schools Go Solar? Imagine all the funds that could be funneled back to actual education, including teacher salary, not to mention the benefits of the resulting clean air for our communities.

Not surprisingly, the study finds three large, sunny states – Texas, California and Florida – have the greatest potential for generating electricity from solar panels on school rooftops, with nearly 90 percent of institutions having at least some roof space suitable for installations. Meanwhile, residents in midwestern states including Wisconsin and Ohio stand to see the biggest reductions in key air pollutants – and costs associated with addressing related health effects – if schools switch from the grid to solar power. (Garthwaite, 2019)


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