Four generations of physics students install solar panel at BCHS

Four generations of physics students install solar panel at BCHS

Photos courtesy of Ava Leone.
Photos courtesy of Ava Leone.
I t takes four pairs of hands to make the light bulb go on. Plus, a little sun and some physics. 

A group of Georgia College physics majors recently installed a solar panel at Baldwin County High School (BCHS). They represented all four years of college—from freshman to a senior who graduated last May. It was the university’s first off-campus solar project—delayed slightly from the spring, due to COVID-19.

This was the most exciting part for me, seeing the transfer of knowledge from my physics scholar, Bo, on down to Evan, our freshman.
– Dr. Mahabaduge
“This was the most exciting part for me, seeing the transfer of knowledge from my physics scholar, Bo, on down to Evan, our freshman,” said Dr. Hasitha Mahabaduge, assistant professor of physics. 

Every year, Mahabaduge gives a seminar on physics to honors students, who have that “little extra something” about them. The seminars are a recruitment tool for Mahabaduge. Inevitably, after each, a student will email him looking to do more. This time, it was a freshman from Acworth, Evan Dunnam. 

Dunnam zeroed in on a point Mahabaduge made regarding his solar panel research. He emailed the professor to ask if there were any solar projects coming up. Mahabaduge said, “Yes, there’s one this weekend.” 

Last month, Dunnam joined three other students: alumnus Bo Cavender, who works at a textile manufacturing company while applying to graduate schools; junior Catherine Boyd and sophomore Caleb Cardinally. Dunnam never thought he’d be doing research and working with upperclassmen so early in college. 

Now, he’s interested in pursuing aerospace engineering. 

It helped me learn about electricity, and it got me curious to get into it a little bit more, because there’s so much I don’t know that I’d like to know.
– Evan Dunnam
“It’s opened up a couple doors for projects in the future,” Dunnam said. “I came in not knowing the first thing about solar panels. The most interesting part for me was doing hands-on work with a breaker box that was connected to the solar panel and a charge controller, an inverter and stuff I’d never even heard of.”

“It helped me learn about electricity,” he said, “and it got me curious to get into it a little bit more, because there’s so much I don’t know that I’d like to know.”

In 2019, BCHS officials approached Georgia College’s Office of Sustainability for help installing a solar panel they received as a donation. They wanted to bring power to a small shed used for gardening projects at the school. 

Caleb Cardinally (left) with Catherine Boyd (right) and Bo Cavender (bottom right).
Caleb Cardinally (left) with Catherine Boyd (right) and Bo Cavender (bottom right).
Sustainability officers got in touch with Mahabaduge, who had his students come up with a list of materials they needed to do the job. Then, Cavender scripted a plan and acted as supervisor, delegating work to the other students. 

All plans seem perfect on paper, Mahabaduge said. But, in life, problems arise. The first obstacle was the shed faced the wrong direction. For all-day sunlight, it needed to be moved to a new cement foundation facing south. 

Once that was done, the students arrived for installation and soon discovered they had mis-measured the roof’s angle. Nail holes, made in wrong places, had to be resealed. Boxes were opened, only for students to find parts missing. A half-day project took all day.

Having to “think on their feet” and solve unexpected problems is part of the learning process, Mahabaduge said. It reflects what students will experience in the real workplace. 

Alumnus Bo Cavender installs solar panel at BCHS.
Alumnus Bo Cavender installs solar panel at BCHS.

In the end, the panel was mounted with nuts and bolts at the right angle to catch the sun. It connects to two batteries, which will generate up to 300 watts of energy—giving the BCHS shed enough “off-the-grid” electricity to power tools and a light for several hours a day. 

This collaborative effort with BCHS “provides a lasting economic impact and will hopefully inspire local students to pursue careers in science,” said Dr. Chavonda Mills, chair of physics, chemistry and astronomy. 

Inspiring others is one reason Boyd got involved with the project. The Columbus resident thinks it’s important to be a role model for high school girls—showing them women can be successful in science. Like Dunnam, Boyd started in Mahabaduge’s research lab as a freshman. She’s on track to get a dual degree in mechanical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and she’d like to work at NASA.

It was surprising to jump right into research my first year. I didn’t know that was unusual, until I started presenting at conferences, and people would ask if I was a junior. By giving us the opportunity to do research as an undergrad, Dr. Mahabaduge has definitely given us a step-up on other students.
– Catherine Boyd