Dr. Erik Helgren

California State University, East Bay

Dr. Erik Helgren

Dr. Helgren, an Associate Professor and currently Chair of the Department of Physics at California State University, East Bay (CSUEB), is the co-developer of the popular course Social Impact through Sustainable Solar Design, also referred to as "the Solar Suitcase class," which includes active learning activities, community engagement, and mentoring. Dr. Helgren's background is in experimental Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Science, and his research has focused on renewable energy materials.  His research interests and shared passion for teaching about renewable energy technologies brought him in contact with Dr. Karina Garbesi from the CSUEB Environmental Studies program with whom he co-teaches the Solar Suitcase class and co-directs the Social Impact Solar Program.

The course gives students the chance to learn about the physics behind solar power, the impact of solar power, its impact on the environment, and the practical use of solar power in the lives of those for whom it offers a low-cost, sustainable means of having light in impoverished circumstances. The focus of the class, is the hands-on building of the Solar Suitcase, a stand-alone, off-grid, solar-powered electrical system, that fits in a suitcase. These suitcases are then donated to energy poor regions of the world, e.g. sub-Saharan Africa, orphanages, schools, libraries, health clinics and refugee camps where these suitcases provide may be the only source of light.  The suitcases have also been used for post-disaster relief.  Last year, they were sent to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.  We are proud to collaborate with WeCare Solar, and Dr. Hal Aronson, the inventor of the Solar Suitcase who facilitates the production and distribution of the suitcases.

This course has a service-learning component, where students have the opportunity to visit local middle and high school classrooms and assist teachers in working alongside their students in learning and building solar suitcases.  For the past two years, the Solar Suitcase program has been expanded to five other CSU campuses (Monterey Bay, San Francisco, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Humboldt and Stanislaus) and we have recently added our first community college partner, Contra Costa Community College.  Partnering faculty have incorporated the solar suitcases into their classrooms and have their students partner with teachers from local schools in their communities to teach in those classrooms, building suitcases.

Though initially designed as off-grid energy systems for energy poor regions in the developing world, i.e., many suitcase have been delivered to Kenya and Uganda, we more recently have found a need here in California.  This past summer we held a workshop in Hoopa, CA, for native American tribal members living in this region of Northern California. In that community, local teachers who had heard about Solar Suitcase program explained that a significant fraction of their native students at the local high school had no electricity in their homes.  The summer program brought together students from the CSU campuses who had taken the Solar Suitcase classes, local high school tribal members and representatives from numerous Native American tribal communities from across the nation.  In the end, we donated five solar suitcases to the community to serve as a type of solar "lending-library" for community members to learn about the benefits of solar electric systems.

The program, including the outreach to partner CSU's and community colleges has garnered support from PG&E, and won an award at the California Higher Education Sustainability Conference.