Published August 17, 2016
The echo of 40 chattering children rises from the center of UB’s Solar Strand on a cloudy August day. Kids enrolled in the UB Child Care Center’s nine-week summer program gather on recycled concrete slabs under one of the largest array of panels, curiously taking in the scale of their surroundings.
“What do you think our planet would be like without the sun?” asks Erin Moscati, sustainability education manager for the Office of Sustainability.
Campers, all ages 5-12, raise their hands, painting a picture of Earth without plants and animals. Moscati explains that the sun is a renewable resource and the surrounding solar panels transform sunlight into energy, powering 700 student apartments on campus.
To give children a more immersive learning experience, Moscati organizes engaging, hands-on activities. After her brief lesson on solar energy, UBCCC instructors gather campers and embark on a nature-based scavenger hunt among the 3,200 photovoltaic panels.
“We see our role as engaging the UB community, and that includes reaching out to kids,” says Moscati. “When kids are exposed to new ideas, they get excited and pass along that excitement to their parents, their grandparents. They become ambassadors for sustainability.”
For Frances Teaman, the scavenger hunt is the most exciting part of the day.
“We get to find cool things from around here,” she says.
Teaman loves to find snails, which she and many of her fellow campers bring back from the scavenger hunt, fascinated by their multi-colored shells and slimy texture.
“When the Solar Strand was created, we wanted it to be a destination, a place where people can come and explore,” Moscati says.
Once the campers finish investigating the gravel pathways, Moscati opens a box, pulling out a roll of black plastic. Teaman and other enthusiastic kids jump up to help unravel what Moscati explains is a solar balloon.
Moscati has volunteers support the unrolled balloon as she ties twine to one end with the help of Christopher Boyd, who reluctantly places his snail into a patch of grass in order to help.
Moscati calls to the children at the other end, asking them to pull apart the plastic. Air fills the cavity, and as the sunlight hits the black shell, the air inside heats up and expands. Heated air has a lower density than the air outside, which makes the balloon rise.
“It’s amazing how that works,” says Ryder Wheeler, his hands clasped behind his back as he stands near Boyd. He scampers toward the opposite end of the balloon, hoping to get in on the action.
As the breeze dies down, Moscati allows the balloon to deflate and then gathers the children around while she pours pale, colored beads into a bowl. The beads are activated by UV rays, becoming darker in color as sunlight hits them — similar to our skin tanning with sun exposure.
Campers string the multicolored beads onto vibrant, rainbow string. Teaman is one of the first to finish a bracelet. It is tied onto her wrist, and she reaches into her pocket and pulls out a plastic bag filled with vacant snail shells.
“I’m taking them home,” she says with a smile. “I’m going to collect them.”
She adds two shells to the bag and closes it, then dashes over to the solar oven, where Moscati hands her a pair of rubber gloves and a chunk of cookie dough to roll into a ball.
Teaman places her roll of cookie dough onto a silver tray. Moscati places the tray down into the oven, which can reach a temperature of up to 350 degrees. Her helpers peer through the glass door, watching the dough start to cook with the help of the sun.
While the cookies bake, campers compare their new bracelets, holding them toward the sun as clouds fill the sky again. Others inspect bugs and butterflies resting on the concrete among the solar panels.
“The Solar Strand is a fun and unexpected place to explore and learn about solar energy, and a different place on campus that a lot of people have yet to discover,” Moscati says.