Classroom Connections: Solar Provides Opportunities from AL to Central America

Finished container classroom with solar array on top.

Renewable energy adoption is on the rise, and there’s no limit to what it can do – and whom it can reach. As nations across the globe turn to massive wind and solar developments to scale up their infrastructure, sometimes it’s the smaller projects that mean the most. For students in both Alabama and Central America, a repurposed shipping container represents an entirely new kind of classroom.

Solar-centric projects.

This past spring, the Sky Youth program at Chickasaw High School chose SunFarm Energy to provide the solar array for the group’s latest container classroom project. “It really is a great opportunity to share the possibilities of solar with the world,” said SunFarm Energy CEO, Doug Herrick. “To see American students using the power of solar to uplift others is inspiring and we’re proud to support Chickasaw High School during this project.” Thanks to the collaboration of students, teachers, staff, and local partners, this fall the longstanding Alabama-based program will send its solar-powered shipping container to a village in Central America to help students access remote learning.

SunFarm Energy crew members install the racking system on top of the container classroom.
Brian Copes looks on as SunFarm Energy crews work on the solar array.
SunFarm Energy crews show Chickasaw students the solar installation process.

Opportunities for all.

In 2023, the SKY Youth program at Chickasaw High School saw a need to assist developing nations with reliable access to electricity and the internet. After COVID-19 disrupted schools across the world, richer countries deployed digital learning as an alternative while nations with unreliable power and internet access could not. 

Out of this growing concern, students at Chickasaw High School decided to convert their latest container classroom into a solar-powered computer lab. They envisioned the new space as a hub for remote learning with accessible internet and a reliable source of power thanks to the attached solar array.

During the 2022/2023 school year, the students set about doing just that. The repurposed shipping container is now a state-of-the-art computer lab complete with a rooftop solar array.

“It really aligns with our curriculum,” says Brian Copes, the founder of the SKY Youth program and a skilled trades teacher at Chickasaw High School. “Students will learn construction skills and convert the container classroom with framed walls, spray foam insulation, vinyl flooring, and electrical work.”

For over 5 years, Copes and his students have been creating container classrooms for underserved communities across the globe. During a visit to Belfate, Honduras in 2017, Copes knew the existing education infrastructure would benefit from hands-on opportunities. Thanks to a joint effort between SKY Youth clubs at schools across Alabama, the program has now supplied Belfate with four different container classrooms including a welding lab, a woodworking and construction lab, a small engine and auto mechanics lab, and a computer lab.

Chickasaw students install the electrical panel inside the container classroom.
Chickasaw students help move materials during the solar array installation.

More than skill building.

But for the team at Chickasaw High School, creating the computer lab classroom is about more than just putting students’ skills to the test. For Amber Dorsett, Chickasaw High School’s Career Coach, the exciting part is seeing a team of school administrators and students come together. “I love how our team is so different and we think of different facets of the project,” says Dorsett. “Our students are able to learn critical thinking skills, like how do we fix this, and how do we face this challenge.”

In addition, Copes believes these projects allow students to dream. The Chickasaw area is a small community where many students have lived in poverty for generations. “Kids are slow to engage and don’t realize they can reach their dream,” says Copes. “When they go on this trip our kids will be changing lives, but in turn, our kids’ lives will be changed.”

In the fall of 2023, Chickasaw High School students will accompany their newly crafted computer lab down to Central America where they will have the opportunity to teach their Central American peers about virtual learning, internet access, and basic computer skills.