Sierra College faculty teach hands-on lesson in solar panel installation |

Sierra College faculty teach hands-on lesson in solar panel installation

Jennifer Terman
Staff Writer

The cost of electricity can be one of the priciest parts of homeownership — aside from the mortgage —which is something solar panels can help reduce.

Sierra College mathematics faculty members, along with Grid Alternatives, installed solar panels on two Habitat for Humanity homes earlier this month to relieve energy costs using sustainable methods and also gain hands-on experience that can be transferred to the classroom.

Solar panels were installed on Jody Veerkamp-Johnson's home on Slate Creek Road three months ago with Grid Alternatives and volunteers from natural foods store UNFI.

Veerkamp-Johnson was able to not only reduce her electric bill, but eliminate it altogether.

“… our guys got to go out and get feedback from the professors, and they got a lot of practical information. Hopefully, it’s the start of a nice relationship.”
Erin Morrissey
Grid Alternatives

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"The first month, the bill dropped almost half and the second month I had no electricity bill," she said, adding that her two teenagers also moved out shortly after installation, which helped reduce the bill.

"It's helped tremendously. Things keep going up and we're all making the same wages, so it's been a lifesaving gift to us."

Sierra College Nevada County campus professor Vicki Day, Truckee-Tahoe campus instructor Jaqueline Anderson and Rocklin campus professors Katie Lucero and Jay Kesler volunteered in collaboration with Grid Alternatives, a nonprofit organization that provides solar panels to low-income families in need at little to no cost.

"It was really successful for both organizations," said Erin Morrissey, project specialist at Grid Alternatives.

"Everybody had a really great time, our guys got to go out and get feedback from the professors, and they got a lot of practical information. Hopefully, it's the start of a nice relationship."

The faculty members were able to lend a hand while learning ways to bring real-life situations to their classrooms, said Day.

Throughout her 22 years of teaching mathematics, students time and again ask when they will actually use their math skills, which Day was able to illustrate with the solar panel project.

"I can show them pictures and the mathematics involved with trying to figure out derating (a calculation based on factors that reduce energy absorption, like shade or dusty panels) so the panels can sustain as much energy as possible," Day said.

"Students can do technical skills, basic math problem-solving, so we're really excited to have this opportunity."

Day said problem-solving skills can be demonstrated for pre-algebra or basic arithmetic students in figuring out how many rows of panels can be put into an area with a certain length without wasting any of the materials.

This can be represented using straws, which particularly helps kinesthetic learners.

Trigonometry students can also learn about angles by figuring out what position the panels need to be in to absorb the most energy while also taking into consideration the latitude, global position and seasons that affect the direction of the sun in Nevada County.

"Students learn angles, roof pitches, and you can get formulas and students can learn how to do technical reading from a manual and make calculations and learn how to plug in numbers," Day said.

The faculty participation in the externship was supported by the Sierra College STEM Collaborative, a program funded by the California Community College Chancellor's Office, to support students interested in technical careers.

"I enjoy how innovative our department is about being aggressive about finding ways to help students, so I'm very fortunate," Day said.

For information about the Sierra College STEM Collaborative, visit and for information about Grid Alternatives.

To contact Staff Writer Jennifer Terman, email or call 530-477-4230.

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