FAST Autistic High School Students: Solar Power Ambassadors

By Karen Mark

As a former mentor for autistic high school students during my college years, I was thrilled to learn about the EPA’s President’s Environmental Youth Award winners from California. Independence High School teachers Tom Horton and Kevin Crosby decided to take six high functioning autistic students and apply their enthusiasm for green science and technology to good use. Being located in the sun abundant region of Bakersfield, California these students and teachers created the Falcon Autistic Solar Team (FAST).

The FAST students each built and operated a solar powered machine. The projects include models such as cars, a Lego Ferris wheel, a house with solar powered fans and light bulbs, and a cooking oven. These models are connected to solar panel arrays and are completely powered by solar or radiant energy. Autistic students learn best from visuals and performing tasks physically. By physically building the models, the FAST students gained a greater understanding of science and energy topics.

In addition to building the models, FAST students shared their science knowledge by educating elementary students and adults in Kern County, CA about solar power, photovoltaic systems, electricity, forms of energy usage, and energy conservation. These presentations did more than simply increase environmental awareness. Challenges for those with autism include social interactions and communicating with others. By presenting and answering questions, the students developed and improved their socialization and public speaking skills.

The students also appeared in local television public service announcements about energy conservation. After receiving the President’s Environmental Youth Award, they were featured in the New York Times’ Green Blog on energy and the environment highlighting their solar presentations and how they advanced environmental awareness and conservation.

I admire the commitment of the special education teachers, Tom and Kevin, to inspire and create the Falcon Autistic Solar Team. By recognizing these students’ interests and building a program to educate others, they are improving their socialization skills and preparing them for the next chapters in their lives. I can’t wait to see what they develop next!

About the author: Karen Mark is a Student Temporary Employment Program intern in the Air and Radiation Division in Region 5. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Geography and Environmental Management and is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Public Service Management.

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