NCSSM-Durham seniors Arthur Zhao and Dhairya Agarwal kneel by the solar panel that powers the LED lights wrapped around the trunk of the tree behind them. A battery collecting energy from the solar panel lives in the "doghouse" next to the tree. (credit: Brian Faircloth)


Students use the sun to light the night

It’s a simple project, really, say NCSSM-Durham seniors Dhairya Agarwal and Arthur Zhao: a string of solar-powered LED lights wrapped around a hardwood tree in the courtyard between three of NCSSM-Durham’s residence halls. A small solar panel feeds energy to a battery housed in a small shelter made of upcycled materials found on campus – that looks very much like a small doghouse. Using an app on their phones, Dhairya and Arthur program the lights to glow in solid colors, or flash in a series of themed hues, such as red and green for the recent holiday season. They hope the simple project will light the night at the Durham campus after they leave and inspire future students to think more deeply about sustainability and how they might contribute to a cleaner energy future.

Dhairya came to NCSSM from STEM Early College at N.C. A&T in Greensboro. “I came into here thinking, ‘I want to go into entrepreneurship,’” Dhairya says, “and I am going out of here thinking, ‘I want to go into environmental science.’”

It was access to resources that shifted Dhairya’s thinking. “I never had the opportunity before to discover more about environmental science,” he says. “But once I came here, I had that opportunity, and I had available to me university-level materials and facilities to do an environmental science project. Being able to do something I love like that for a whole year was just, like, something I couldn’t imagine two years ago. It’s been phenomenal, honestly.”

The solar-powered LEDs glow in holiday colors prior to Winter Break. (credit: Arthur Zhao)

Arthur, from East Chapel Hill High School in Chapel Hill, has long been interested in engineering, but his interest in sustainability began with his arrival at NCSSM.

“I really got into it last year,” he says. “I just really love the concept of renewable energy and how it’s free. It’s right in front of us, the sun is right in front of us, but we’re just not using it as much as we could.

“NCSSM,” Arthur adds, “really allows you to pursue what you’re interested in, and the teachers are just so passionate and helpful.”

Teachers like Jon Davis, an engineering instructor at NCSSM who was the first to suggest to Dhairya and Arthur that they combine their talents and interests into a renewable energy project.

“They were very enthusiastic, very excited to do a hands-on project, and they were always the ones sort of pushing the agenda,” Davis says. “They were pulling me along as the advisor for sure. They were that enthusiastic.”

Though a simple project, Davis says the thought it required is very much real-world. “Like a lot of Gen Z students, Arthur and Dhairya see that solar and energy storage will be an important part of North Carolina’s energy future, and they grapple with the same questions that our state’s energy planners have to ask each day: how many hours a day can we have the lights on, and still have the battery charged with the kinds of sunlight that we get in the different seasons of the year. So, yeah, the problem is the same, just on a much smaller scale.”

With half of their senior year still left, Arthur and Dhairya have already made plans with Davis for one more project: a “digital” garden that uses more than photosynthesis to generate energy from the sun. “We’re planning to use solar power to run a bunch of devices – like Arduinos and Raspberry Pis – that will automate things like watering the garden,” Dhairya says.

“I’m really excited,” Arthur adds. “We can do a lot more than hanging up lights, and hopefully we’ll inspire more juniors to continue the projects.”