Teaching Profession Opinion

Solar Panels Electrify Student Success

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — March 02, 2017 9 min read
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Blaine Boyer practices his preferred teaching technique of allowing students to learn by doing and by correcting mistakes. “I try never to pick up a tool,” says the Rancho Vista Continuation High School teacher.

Blaine Boyer says he doesn’t try to rescue students. But the 65-year-old continuation high school teacher is very good at planting the seeds of success in previously unmotivated students. He’s gained notice through a solar panel project that’s full of science and worldly knowledge that leads to good paying jobs for graduates. Still, converting sunlight into electricity is just the means to a greater end for Boyer. He’s trying to shine a light on the pathway from sullen adolescence to functional adulthood.

Boyer is also a farmer. He and his wife, Margee, grow avocados, lemons and persimmons on their 18 acre farm in Temecula, California, where he teaches at Rancho Vista Continuation High School. “Teaching’s about planting seeds, not harvesting,” he said. He came to teaching after running his own business, selling real estate, filling executive positions with a petroleum drilling company, and being a manager at Disneyland. “I’ve made more money in other jobs. Here I can help kids have better lives.”

For his students who dropped out, flunked out, were pushed out of conventional high schools, leading better lives means mastering school as they experiment with life. Before a student at Rancho Vista gets close to a solar panel, they get a few tough love life lessons in a class called “orientation,” or “what do all successful students do.” In case you are not doing well in high school or life, here is Boyer’s secret code:

  1. Show up. These students missed the lesson that success requires showing up. Almost all of them fell behind in high school because absences dragged down their grades. “In the real world, you get fired for missing work 20% of the time. “I tell them that this is how it is in the real world: no employer will tolerate absenteeism or sloppy work habits.”
  2. Pay attention. “You will not wear earbuds in my class.... But Mr. Boyer you say, ‘I’m multitasking’.... There’s no such thing; there’s just rapid shifting from one task to another and the teenage brain is not very good at it. So don’t try.”
  3. Ask for help. “Never, ever leave a class with an assignment you don’t understand. Teachers want to help you, but you have to ask.”
  4. Zero’s kill. “Even if you get good grades on most of your assignments and tests, a zero for failing to turn in something or take a test will drop your passage rate to failing. If you miss a test or assignment, always, the very next day, ask your teacher if you can make it up.”

This last lesson was illustrated with a set of hypothetical students and grades. Even a student, who had a string of A-grade assignments, could be knocked into failing grades by not taking a couple tests. “That’s not fair,” said one student. “I didn’t say it was fair,” Boyer replied, “I said that’s the way it is. You can’t change the grading system, but you can take advantage of it. Even getting 50 out of a 100 is way better than not turning in anything.”

In front of Boyer are 18 students who have largely been immune from teacher talk. Why are they listening to this guy? Big words like trust and respect are insufficient. Understanding why unsuccessful teenagers would take direction from a senior citizen teacher is contained in the stories of the Australian Bearded Dragons, the painted electric guitar, and, finally, the solar panels.

live in a heated terrarium at the back of Boyer’s classroom. The students are eager to show it to me, and also see if I’ll freak out or pick it up. Lizard in hand, I pass the test (photo at left). Then a student rushes up with a bottle of hand sanitizer (“they pee a lot”).

Boyer’s classroom has become a gathering place for students, especially during lunchtime. The lizards are there for amusement value, but also for lessons in caring. Students feed them mealworms, which are growing in another terrarium. They heat lunch in a microwave that Boyer brought in. They make soup or the ever-popular Raman noodles with the instant-hot water from his lab sink, or they play with the keyboard he put in the room.

The students were largely sitting in a tight cluster in the back of the room near the lizards. Boyer doesn’t intrude. He sits at the teacher desk on the other side of the room. A couple students come over and ask questions, but he’s not holding court; he’s providing a safe space.

In the painted electric guitar room (officially the Achievement Through Arts program), Mia Wellbrock is most keen to show me her creation (photo below, left). In a literal homage to Guns ‘N Roses, she has put real dried flowers on the guitar she made for her boyfriend. Around the room, other students and other guitars are in various stages of completion. Some display high artistry; others look as if they’d been painted by a teenager’s first experience with a brush. No matter.

Like the orientation, the guitar project is designed to teach discipline to kids who missed or dismissed that lesson from their growing up. There’s discipline in assembling the guitars from kits. It is entirely possible to mess up the wiring, gluing, or finishing. There’s discipline and incentive in the class itself. Students don’t just enroll in the project; they and their parents sign a contract. Continuing to assemble and paint a guitar is contingent on attending and completing credits for a student’s other classes and for interpersonal behavior that would shame many of our nation’s leaders. The contract stipulates, “I will show consideration for others by using an appropriate voice level and by listening and using respectful language and gestures.... I will build others ‘up’ and not ‘down’.”

Violate the contract, and you don’t get to take your guitar home. Violate the contract, and you miss the coveted field trip to the Fender Guitar Co. factory up the road in Corona, California.

And, finally, there is the solar panel project for which Boyer is known. The short narrative, captured in a newspaper story about the project, is that failing students turn their lives around. “Now, the 18-year-old senior is again speeding toward graduation and a potential career producing clear solar energy...” And as Boyer put it, “The whole idea is school-to-work. They don’t have to go to college. ... They can actually go get a good-paying career straight from high school.”

That’s true, but it’s not the whole story.

First, it’s a story of teacher invention. No one from the national, state, or county government told Boyer to do this or gave him the plans. He connected his kids’ needs to a possible teaching technique. At the beginning, he brought his own tools to school for the project. Later, the California Teachers Association helped with three grants totaling $28,000. The school district provides the supplies.

Second, it’s a story of gradual growth. I watched students taking the first steps toward understanding enough about electricity to eventually walk on a roof and install a solar panel. I watched as seven students got a hands-on introduction to wires. As anyone who has ever installed a ceiling fan or light switch knows, wire stripping isn’t as easy as it looks. One student accidentally cut through all but one of the strands of wire. Another crimped the connector improperly, and it fell off.

The students are working through a wiring manual. “These are what are called standard operating procedures,” says Boyer. “Every organization, every corporation, has them, and sometimes there are exceptions. ...See where it says to make the wires 6 inches long, make them 3 instead; we’re saving wire, and use these connectors instead of the ones the book shows you.”

Boyer sits back, and for the next 20 minutes seven students work furiously at stripping wires and crimping on the connections. Boyer doesn’t say a word. As class time ends, he holds up a hammock of wires and connectors: “Does yours look like this,” he asks. Many frowns and looks of dismay. “You didn’t read the instructions; you looked over to see what your co-workers were doing, but no one read the standard operating procedures.”

A waste can was passed around, and Boyer said matter of factly, “So, Monday we’ll get it right.”

It turns out that following instructions is quite important when working with electricity. Even the batteries that students use to power their first experiments pack 7 amps, enough current to melt one student’s improperly constructed electric motor. Wiring solar panels is serious business. Not all the wire strippers will make it to the advanced class, where students walk on the roof and install actual panels.

Between wire-stripping and solar panel installation lies a lot of lab work and experimentation. Boyer’s lab contains several work stations, where students learn the practical science behind green energy. At each, students experiment with wind energy and fuel cells that produce electricity using a solution of water, baking soda and an electrolyzer in addition to solar.

Only after successful lab work do students get to climb on the “roof.” Boyer and his students built a shingled roof structure on the high school campus. It’s only about six feet off the ground, but students address all the safety issues. “Hard hats on, please. ...Never use a ladder that isn’t anchored to the wall.” Boyer asks, “what do you do when something is rolling off the roof? NO, don’t look up; it’ll hit you in the face. Run under the eaves.”

Properly instructed, students begin installing the stanchions on which solar panels are mounted. They make all the beginner’s mistakes. Some don’t drill straight. Others miss the joists because they didn’t measure correctly. Boyer stands by patiently. “I try never to pick up a tool,” he says. Meanwhile, students work on self-correction. (Below: Mark Cuentro, Baker Gani, and Jonathan Shepard puzzle over the proper assembly of the jacks that hold up the solar panels.)

There’s payoff to all the trial and error. Students gain proficiency. They also get internships and jobs. Six students from the Boyer’s first class got internships with Ambassador Energy in Murrieta, California, experiences that also included free access to a “gold standard” industry certification program. The company planned to offer only two internships, but was sufficiently impressed with the Rancho Vista pupils that all six of them got jobs. What did they like? Enthusiasm, for one thing, and they showed up well dressed and on time for their interviews. (See lesson one in orientation.)

Internships also prepare students at GRID Alternatives, which partners with Habitat for Humanity to install solar energy on the houses it builds and rehabs. Michael Sanchez was one of these. He went from high school to full time employment moving from installing to completing quotes and managing a department. He’s in college studying engineering.

And Alan McGavin is working on commercial solar installations for Helio Power. “He’s saving money,” Boyer said, taking out his phone to show the threads of their text messages, “he wants to start his own business.”

These, and many other students.

So, Blaine Boyer plants seeds, and like every teacher in the world, seeing them sprout and blossom is the best reward he gets. He was about to quit recently, a bit discouraged, when he was shopping at a local supermarket and a long-graduated student walked up and said, “Hi Mr. Boyer; you made a difference in my life.”

Boyer signed up for another year.


Photos: CTK

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Dick Gale of the California Teachers Association for introducing me to Boyer.

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