George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Solar-Energy Star: A Middle School Student Makes a Scientific Breakthrough

William Yuan earns a $25,000 fellowship in an Oregon school district’s laboratory.

December 3, 2008
Credit: Courtesy of the Davidson Institute
Words for the Future: William Yuan discusses his project with a graduate student, and professors John Carruthers and Chunfei Li.

Dressed in jacket and tie, William Yuan sits in the basement of the U.S. Library of Congress, his hands clutching the bench beneath him. The thirteen-year-old has traveled to Washington, DC, from his hometown of Beaverton, Oregon, not to sightsee like most kids his age, but to take care of business.

Yuan has already met with his state's congressional representatives, and in half an hour, he will appear onstage to accept a $25,000 fellowship from the Davidson Institute. The seventh grader won the award for designing a new, more efficient solar cell -- a project he undertook at Meadow Park Middle School.

Yuan began working with solar cells two years ago, after science teacher Susan Duncan encouraged him to tackle an engineering project. He spent hours searching the Internet, brainstorming with Duncan, and talking with professionals before he found a topic that piqued his interest: the global energy crisis. Building on research from Georgia Tech and Notre Dame universities, Yuan found a way to improve the conversion efficiency and yields of solar cells.

Most solar cells absorb visible light to produce electricity, but his design harnesses both visible and ultraviolet light. That's particularly helpful in cloudy areas, such as where he lives in the Pacific Northwest, because the solar cell can continue to generate electricity even when clouds obscure the Sun. To achieve this result, Yuan applied various coatings, integrated nanotubes, and added specialized nanostructures to a typical solar cell. Experts have given his method a thumbs-up.

Solar-Power Prodigy

Yuan was one of twenty scholars under the age of eighteen the Davidson Institute recognized in September 2008 for their extraordinary work in subjects as diverse as literature, math, and philosophy. What sets Yuan apart? He is the youngest student ever to win in the science category, a testament to both his intelligence and his tenacity. "The scientific process can be slow," notes Tacie Moessner, who manages Davidson's fellowship program. "So although many of the fellows begin their projects at a younger age, by the time they have something to actually present, they may be sixteen or seventeen years old."

Yuan's solar cell is certainly not the stuff of a typical middle school science project. But his achievements are a shining example of what's possible when a public school -- or a school district -- makes a concerted effort to promote advanced learning. The Beaverton School District did just that four years ago when it started Summa Options, a program of advanced curriculum for students who score in the 99 percentile on standardized reading and math tests or a test of cognitive ability.

The idea was to bring exceptional children in grades 6-8 together to be active participants in their own education. This approach is a departure from that of many traditional talented and gifted programs, which tend to label kids but do little to foster their abilities.

"I was enrolled in a TAG program, but they just tested me once and said I was in," Yuan recalls. "They didn't really do anything." By creating an outlet for his energy and talent, Summa Options gave Yuan the support he needed to thrive.

Of course, placing a disparate group of geniuses together in one room could have been disastrous. Yet the Summa teachers quickly discovered that profoundly gifted kids flourish when they are among peers. "Though you may envision a room full of bored, lazy, and surly know-it-alls, the real dynamics are very different," says Summa humanities teacher Mark Wandell. "Students are no longer scared of being put down or misunderstood, and so discussions are consistently rich and passionate. Formerly shy and withdrawn kids become gregarious, and the gregarious learn how to truly lead."

This environment encouraged Yuan to excel. "My peers are at about the same level, so we're spurred to go farther because of the competition," he says. "We push each other."

Summa Substance

The Summa program emphasizes individualized instruction within a broad curriculum. Each student chooses a science research topic, investigates it, and then prepares a background research paper. Classes focus on meeting goals. For example, a student may spend months -- rather than days -- trying to solve a given problem through extensive research and experimentation. "As long as you get everything done by a certain date," Yuan notes, "you can go at your own pace, spending more time on a certain subject, as opposed to finishing something that you're good at and then being bored for the rest of the time."

Students devoted much of the first trimester of the 2007-08 school year to preparing a science fair project, some of which are nominated to compete in the Northwest Science Expo (a qualifying fair for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair). Their teachers helped by providing them with the materials they needed. "We work with local high school and college instructors to find equipment for particularly advanced projects," says science teacher Susan Duncan. "Fortunately, our science lab has enough equipment and space for students to work as individuals, as partners, or in small groups to complete labs each week." (Students use a form with rubrics that helps them refine their classroom and science fair projects. Download a PDF of the form.)

Duncan also helps her students avoid boredom by strongly encouraging them to take part in extracurricular activities that pair academics with practical skills. Competitions such as the First Lego League -- in which teams design robots using Lego bricks, sensors, motors, and gears -- allow the Summa students to gain confidence, work in a multiage setting, and, of course, have fun.

"Last year at Science Bowl, our team was made up almost entirely of eighth graders -- I was one of the only sixth graders," Yuan says. "That was a really great experience. We made it to the state finals." (Yuan and his teammates are highly decorated. This year, they placed second at the Lego league's International Open and at the Northwest Science Expo, and they won the Oregon Chess for Success State Tournament.)

Meeting of the Minds

Competitions also provide the students with ample opportunity to bond with peers and adults beyond their classmates, teachers, and parents. While working on a Lego project, Yuan and the rest of the school's Math and Science Engineering (MESA) Club visited a Portland State University engineering-design lab. There, Yuan met research professor Chunfei Li and became interested in nanotechnology.

"Later, when the Lego project was done, I went back and Professor Li taught me about nanostructures using the electron microscope," explains Yuan. He met with Li after school and on weekends to learn how to apply what he'd learned to the solar cell. Without his science teacher and mentors, Yuan feels things would have been different: "I probably couldn't have finished my solar-cell project. If even one of them was taken out, huge chunks of the project would collapse."

Another key supporter was Zhiyong (Fred) Li, a process engineer at Applied Materials and a friend of the family. Li recognized Yuan's interest in engineering and math and became the boy's mentor. "I am excited to see more and more young and talented people such as William interested and involved in green renewable energy projects," says Li, who spoke with Yuan regularly on the phone. "William's project deals with the heart of the issue in solar technology -- increasing conversion efficiency and yields, and lowering the cost of solar electricity. His solutions are very well thought out and make perfect practical sense in theory."

Yuan also received a great deal of support from his parents, who are both engineers at Intel. William conducted his first science experiment -- studying the life of a laptop battery -- when he was in fourth grade. He attributes his love of science to natural curiosity. "Listening to the news or watching the Discovery Channel introduced me to all sorts of concepts that you don't get by watching the Cartoon Network," Yuan explains. "I would take all those concepts and events and look them up and start integrating them in to what I knew, and then my perspective of the world would change."

Yuan also possesses the discipline of a pianist and the critical mind of a chess player (two pastimes he enjoys). "I notice problems or inefficiencies of a certain product or process, and then I think about ways I can fix them," he says.

Even on his way to Washington, DC, Yuan was thinking deeply. "If I'm sitting in an airport, I note the inefficiencies of the McDonald's line," he says. "I think about those things if I get bored." Yuan plans to save his Davidson prize money for college, where he aims to study science and technology. For now, he's headed back to the Meadow Park lab. There, he's building an optimization model of the parameters of his solar cell for the school's science fair.

"I want to verify my calculations and experiment more to make sure everything that I've calculated and tested works in the real world as opposed to a simple lab setting," Yuan says. He wants to be certain that all the work he's done on solar cells -- already worth at least $25,000 -- gets put to good use.

Jennifer Hillner is a New Hampshire-based freelance writer who specializes in technology.

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