On a research trip to Nigeria in 2008, Dr. Laura Stachel made a surprising and heartbreaking discovery about why so many mothers and babies were dying in childbirth. The problem was not only too few doctors and not enough medical supplies, it was also a matter of too little light. Hospitals routinely lost electricity at night, with night time deliveries attended to in near-darkness. Cesarean sections became higher-risk when conducted by flashlight, if they weren’t cancelled altogether. As doctors waited for the sun, their patients suffered. Too often, the outcomes were tragic.
Although Laura went to Nigeria to teach best obstetric practices, she discovered that she had to deal with the most pressing problem first. These doctors, nurses, and midwives needed light. Luckily, Laura had a connection: her husband, Hal Aronson, a solar educator.
When Hal learned of the problems with unstable lighting in the hospital, he got to work designing a solar electric system for the hospital. He provided a demonstration solar lighting kit that Laura could bring back to Nigeria. On a piece of plywood sized to fit in a carry-on suitcase, Hal created a prototype of a stand-alone solar system that provided light and charging power. The Solar Suitcase was born.
Demand for these systems was immense and immediate. Laura and Hal needed hands to build systems. Hal’s network of educators heeded the call. He diagrammed the system’s wiring, drew up a list of materials, and began providing workshops for teachers on how to build a Solar Suitcase. The teachers engaged their students, and together, they built systems. When finished, Hal would check the systems and prepare them for Laura to hand-deliver to those in need.
As We Care Solar grew, so did demand. The work provided by these committed teachers and students wasn’t enough. A generous grant enabled We Care Solar to contract a local manufacturer to build the systems, generating a higher number of suitcases with more consistent quality for hospitals and clinics. This was a tremendous gain for the organization and for the suitcase recipients, but what about our earliest partners, the teachers and their students?
Building Solar Suitcases was exactly the kind of hands-on learning project that inspired students. Teachers wanted to continue this meaningful program. We agreed. Teachers and students were at the heart of the program when it began, and that is where we wanted them to stay.
At the same time, word spread about our Solar Suitcases. We received requests from schools and orphanages for reliable lighting and power and realized we had a perfect match. Our student education program could provide Solar Suitcases to young people in other countries! Together with board member Gigi Goldman, Hal began to create an educational program based on the We Care Solar Suitcase.
On January 21, 2013, We Care Solar, in collaboration with The Tech Museum of Innovation, launched We Share Solar, a hands-on STEM education and global service learning program. Forty students came together to build ten We Share Solar Suitcases. We created a Solar Suitcase kit for the students, featuring bright blue cases to make them distinct from our yellow Solar Suitcases for health care. The blue student-built systems were donated to unelectrified schools and community centers. The debut of the We Share Solar educational program was a success.
In the Fall of 2013, We Share Solar formally launched its classic education program with a 2-day Professional Development teacher training workshop at Princeton University attended by over 40 educational professionals. Affirmed in our belief in the Solar Suitcase as an exceptional learning tool, we continue to work with students and educators to share knowledge and light here at home and across the globe.