Two youth measure a solar panel.

Youth Innovation for Million-Dollar Savings

4-H Youth Innovation Leads to Nearly $1.5 Million Savings for Wapello School District

Although they knew they couldn’t solve the world’s energy problems, Louisa County 4-H club youth at Wapello Elementary School wanted to make a difference in their community. So, in 2022, as they competed in FIRST LEGO League, they took on a local energy challenge: Could installing solar panels help their school use less coal-generated electricity and save money?

FIRST LEGO League gets young learners excited about science, engineering, and technology. 4-H Youth Development partners with FLL at Iowa State University to provide this team-based learning challenge for 4-H youth in grades 4-8.

So many youth wanted to take on the challenge that the 4-H club fielded two FLL teams. One team used the guidance and mentorship of Terry Dvorak of Red Lion Renewables to calculate a solar panel installation estimate and proposal, while the other partnered with Mike Mohrfeld of Mohrfeld Electric to conduct an energy audit of the school to determine if their energy consumption was efficient.

“We had two teams working separately, but their work individually went to a greater effort, which was the overall solar panel project,” explained Abby Boysen, 4-H youth program specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach. Through the conversions and measurement calculations, the teams determined that they had more than enough space to make the school almost entirely solar-powered, and it would be more energy efficient than their current system.

“It’s always a beautiful thing to see when the youth have an aha moment. The students see something they didn’t understand before, and it finally works,” explained Tyler Ehrman, 4-H club president and high school tech mentor.

The teams presented their project ideas to the local school board. “We thought it would just be a run-of-the-mill presentation,” said Mike Peterson, Wapello Community School District superintendent. “But it quickly became much more than that. You could tell from the enthusiasm of the kids, the number of people who came out to support them; they were prepared and enthusiastic.”

Then the teams presented their estimate, calculated to two decimal points: $1.46 million in projected lifetime savings. Afterward, there was a silent pause of disbelief. “It kind of caught the school board off guard because, you know, kids will do a presentation at the school board. They’re kind of there to listen courteously. But then when it came out that [they could] actually save [their] school money without spending money … it was all exciting,” Dvorak said.

“What really stood out to us was when it was made clear that we could save a significant amount of money with not having to invest any district funds upfront,” Peterson said.

“In 4-H, it is important to have the guidance of caring adults because it is a learning environment. It’s very experiential, and we do a lot of hands-on activities and collaboration,” Boysen explained. “[The youth] need to know they have the support and encouragement to engage in exploratory learning from their club leaders and tech mentors, who provide them with guidance.”

In August 2023, the teams held a groundbreaking ceremony to kick off the solar installation. As of December 2023, three buildings and a covered bus drop-off canopy had solar panels installed, significantly saving the school district energy and money. The additions also created a buzz in their community, allowing the youth to provide education on their project beyond school walls.

“This year, we’re continuing forward by trying to have other schools put up solar panels on their roof, trying to spread the news of how we got ours last year,” said 4-H club member Paisley Shafer.

“I don’t think any of those 20 youth will ever forget that $1.46 million … it’s unbelievable,” Boysen said. “They really have a deep knowledge and pride in what they’ve done, and the solar canopy outside of the elementary school will serve as a reminder of their hard work, commitment, and project success. It will be a trophy that they remember for a lifetime.”

Solar Panel Project Recognized by 1,000 Friends of Iowa

Each year, 1,000 Friends of Iowa gives awards to projects that help advance sustainability across Iowa. The Louisa County 4-H club’s solar panel project for the Wapello Community School District received a 2024 Best Development Award in the Renewable Energy category and also received a Young Leaders special award. The youth received the awards Jan. 23 at the State Capitol in Des Moines, where they also met with Gov. Kim Reynolds and Rep. Taylor Collins from Louisa County.

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