By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
It was graduation day Saturday, February 6 at W.R. Harper High School in Englewood. This wasn’t an ordinary graduation. There were no caps and gowns and pomp and pageantry. Instead, the ceremony was held in one of the school’s hallways, where straight tube fluorescent bulbs shined on some 34 students who one day may replace them with instruments that produce solar light, converted energy that comes from the sun.
It’s a process that in the past two weeks captured the imagination of future scientists and engineers from various minority neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side. For four hours, they teamed up with mentors and learned about solar energy and its impact on America’s future. Sponsored by ComEd, the program, called Solar Spotlight, pulled students out of bed on the weekends to teach them an alternative and more efficient way of supplying light to buildings, roadways and homes.
In addition to live solar demonstrations, students also learned about prominent Black trailblazers in STEM-related careers (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math- ematics). They also constructed their own solar-powered cells. They showcased their solar panels at the Lighting Dedication Ceremony at Harper High School and Firehouse Community Arts Center in Lawndale. Another crop of students participated in a similar program at Auburn High School in Rockford.
The program culminated Saturday, with a “graduation ceremony,” where each graduate was awarded a $250 college scholarship. In all Com-Ed awarded more than $10,000
in scholarships to the program’s participants. Proud parents smiled and cameras flashed as the students beamed with excitement after learning the mysteries of solar energy.
“Before I thought it wasn’t a big deal, but now with global warming I see a need for it,” said 18-year-old Jonathan Paredes, referring to a climate shift that’s causing above normal temperatures and rising sea levels around the world.
Another participant, Tajohanae Ashcroft, 15, a junior at Proviso West High School, said she wasn’t initially excited about spending her Saturday mornings learning about solar energy. Once the class started, Tajohanae said she was hooked.
“They made it so much fun,” she said. “You have to be open to new learning about new things.”
During the program, students were taught by a diverse group of young engineers who are also employees of ComEd. Students also learned how to apply principles from math and science in calculating solar energy.
Students in the Solar Spotlight program were in 9th through 12th grades at various local high schools. To participate in the Solar Spotlight program, applicants were nominated by Syncere, PUSH Excel and George Westinghouse College Prep, said Kevin Brookins Sr, vice president of the Strategy and the Administration. Brookins, who has worked for ComEd for 32 years, is the highest-ranking Black executive at the company.
About three of the program’s mentors were Black. By exposing students to successful Black professionals in STEM fields, Brookins hopes the program will inspire many Black students to follow in their footsteps.
“Solar power is becoming an important source of energy and green technology continues to grow. We want to ensure African American youth will be prepared to pursue and succeed in these areas,” he said.
Brookins said this is the first year of the Solar Spotlight program, but more are planned. He said during Women’s History Month last spring, ComEd sponsored a program where high school girls created six go-karts out of refrigerators and rode them around the Field Museum. One of the go-karts was featured in last year’s Bud Billiken Parade in Bronzeville. He said that project inspired ComEd to create the Solar Spotlight program.