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Students advocating for solar energy at Tacoma middle school to speak on national panel

Three students from Jason Lee Middle School presented their solar project idea to Gov. Jay Inslee in early 2019.
Courtesy of Generation 180
Three students from Jason Lee Middle School presented their solar project idea to Gov. Jay Inslee in early 2019.

A student-led push to get solar panels installed at a middle school in Tacoma is receiving national recognition from a clean energy nonprofit called Generation 180. And while the girls involved have now moved on to high school, they’re continuing to advocate and fundraise for the project.

Sammy Firkins, Gwen Newport and Annie Son will talk about their idea to generate solar electricity at Jason Lee Middle School in a panel discussion Thursday afternoon that’s part of the National Solar Tour organized by Generation 180.

In 2019, the three of them teamed up with their science teacher, Kathy Hall, to push for solar panels to be installed. Hall, who has taught at the school for about a dozen years and uses solar power at her own house, said it’s long been a dream of hers. The school would be the first in the Tacoma district to use solar energy.

“Ever since I came to Jason Lee, I’ve looked at that roof saying, 'That roof needs solar panels,’” Hall said, with a laugh.

The girls presented their idea to Gov. Jay Inslee’s STEM Education Innovation Alliance meeting in early 2019 and received enthusiastic support. They then spoke to the Tacoma school board and garnered buy-in from the district, though they were told the district did not have the roughly $200,000 for the 277 solar panels and that they would have to fundraise. They’ve since raised more than half that amount through grants and individual donations.

Gwen Newport said she’s always cared a lot about environmental issues and that she’s troubled that climate change does not get the attention it deserves.

“At this point, I feel like it’s kind of been given to my generation almost as our responsibility now and so being able to be a part of this project and take action is really important to me,” she said.

The solar panels have not been installed at the school yet. But Hall said she estimates that the project will reduce the school’s power costs by about $14,000 a year, and that it also will serve an educational purpose.

“We will have live data always streaming available so that people can see how the panels are working and how they correlate to the weather and how they correlate to the amount of electricity we’re using, and it will be an incredible learning tool,” she said.

According to Generation 180, more than 7,300 schools across the country use solar power.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.