Exploring Solar Energy: The Science Behind Design

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, December 6, 2007

Grade Level

  • High School


  • Design for the Other 90%

Subject Area

  • Language Arts
  • Science

Lesson Time

Three fifty-minute class periods


Of the world’s total population of 6.5 billion, 5.8 billion people, or 90%, have little or no access to most of the products and services many of us take for granted. In fact, nearly half do not have regular access to food, clean water, or shelter. Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum’s exhibition Design for the Other 90% explores a growing movement among designers to design low-cost solutions for this “other 90%.” In this lesson students will explore energy-related problems and design solutions.

National Standards

Common Core English Language Arts
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards
Strand Reading
Strand Writing
Engineering Education
Language Arts - Reading
Language Arts - Writing
Working With Others

Common Core Standards

Anchors for Reading:

Key Ideas and Details:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.3 Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

Craft and Structure:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6 Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.9 Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.10 Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

Anchor standards for Speaking and Listening:

Comprehension and Collaboration:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.3 Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.5 Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

Anchor standards for Language:

Conventions of Standard English:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.6 Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.


Students will:
  • Investigate the sources and properties of energy
  • Explore the connections between science and design
  • Conduct internet research
  • Analyze, evaluate, and summarize varied information sources
  • Create a workshop



Computer with internet access


Building Background Activity One: Design Innovations
The purpose of this activity is to provide students with an introduction to the design innovations featured in Cooper-Hewitt's Design for the Other 90% exhibition.
1. Introduce your students to Cooper-Hewitt's Design for the Other 90%. They can view the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_g37QUl6RPI.
2. Provide time for students to browse the different sections of the website. You may also choose to have them complete this task as homework. Lead a class discussion about the exhibition, using the following questions as guidelines:
  • What do you think is the purpose of the exhibition?
  • What surprised you the most?
  • What area interested you the most? Why?
  • What did you learn?
3. In small groups, students can visit the Solutions page at http://www.designother90.org/solutions/?exhibition=12 and read about design innovations that address the theme of “Energy.” Have the students choose one design innovation, and create a poster highlighting what it looks like and the problem it is designed to address. Post the students’ work to share with others in the school and community.
Steps for Learning Activity One: Science and the Solar Kitchen
The purpose of this activity is to allow students to investigate the science behind energy-related solar design innovations.
1. Divide the class into small groups. Give each group a copy of “The Science Behind the Design” handout. Tell the students that they are going to investigate the scientific principles used in one of the Design for the Other 90% exhibition’s energy-related designs and create a workshop for fifth-and sixth-grade students. 2. After each group has presented its work, lead a class discussion based on the following questions:
  • What did you learn from your classmates’ presentations?
  • What was the best part of each presentation?
  • What role can you play in raising awareness of energy-related problems in the world?


Create a class rubric with your students that will help them understand the effectiveness of their work. Use the following guidelines to help create the rubric.
  • Rate the effectiveness of your group brainstorming.
  • Rate the effectiveness of your research on energy-related issues.
  • Rate the quality of your workshop in explaining scientific principles.
  • Rate the quality of the teaching in your workshop.
  • Rate the quality of your visual aid.
  • Rate the quality of your workshop activity.
  • Rate how well your group was able to collaborate.
  • Rate your creativity.

Enrichment Extension Activities

Solar S’mores
Have your students participate in a hands-on solar energy activity. As a class, create Solar S’mores. Follow the directions at http://climatekids.nasa.gov/smores/.
Differentiation for Elementary School:
  • Demonstrate how solar energy works by racing solar toy cars. You can buy pre-assembled solar toy cars, kits for making solar toy cars, or you can follow these instructions to make the cars with your class using recycled materials: http://www.instructables.com/id/A-Solar-Powered-Toy-Car-Handmade-1/.
  • Younger students can design a solar energy workshop for preschool or kindergarten age children. Ask the teacher of a younger class if they would like to have their students participate in the workshop.
Differentiation for Middle School:
  • Middle school students can design a solar energy workshop for elementary school children. Ask the teacher of a younger class if they would like to have their students participate in the workshop.

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