||The eighth grade team from St. James School in Madison whose solar-panel project won the first round in the national Lexus Eco Challenge, poses with their educational model of how solar panels operate. (Catholic Herald photo/Kat Wagner)
MADISON -- A team of eighth-grade students at St. James School recently won $10,000 in the national Lexus Eco Challenge contest with a proposal and fundraising campaign to put a solar panel on the school. Now, this team from the small Catholic school is running against 15 teams from schools across the country for a chance to win $30,000.
“What has been fun for me is to see them really engaged in it and their willingness to put their energy into it,” said Gina Pignotti, the St. James School sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade science teacher and eighth grade religion and art teacher.
“I really liked the project,” she said. “It engaged them as a topic that matters, and they could see that — it made an impact on them.”
Developing a plan
The project came into being when, near the beginning of the year, Pignotti split the eighth-grade class into two groups of eight and assigned each team to come up with an action plan that would address different environmental elements, according to the Lexus Eco Challenge: land/water or air/climate. One team decided to tackle ozone depletion; the other team looked at renewable energy sources.
Each team researched their topics thoroughly, collectively deciding on the angle they would address, and brought in or interviewed experts in the fields.
The team working on an educational initiative on ozone depletion interviewed professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, including a Nobel Prize winner. They developed a Web site and, with the help of Ryan Freng, co-owner of the Madison-based video production company Backflip Film Productions, a video now available online.
The team working on renewable energy sources narrowed down their focus to solar panels and spoke to representatives at Madison Gas and Electric to determine the feasibility of using solar panels to offset the energy usage at a school such as St. James. One solar panel would cost $7,000 and, according to the research done by the team, would pay itself off in only eight years.
Make a difference
The solar panel project team is continuing to raise money to purchase and install a solar panel at St. James School in Madison. For more information on how you can help, contact teacher Gina Pignotti at
For a school with only 195 students, this seemed like a goal too high to be achievable.
“When we thought of it, we didn’t think we’d start raising the money,” said Andrea Wright, one of the solar panel team members.
“Seven thousand dollars is a lot for a little school to raise, all together,” Savannah Wallace, another team member, added.
But with the help and expertise of Carolyn Averill, development associate at St. Paul University Catholic Center in Madison, the team learned the basics of fundraising and developed a plan to raise the amount for one solar panel.
At the beginning of January, the team sent out a letter and pledge card to school families and received several thousand in donations.
Passing the challenge
In mid-February, the solar panel project passed the air/climate challenge to become one of 16 winning projects — eight each from middle school and high school teams. Each winning team received $10,000 in grants and scholarships.
Two thousand dollars of that amount will be set aside by the school for the solar panel project, which raises the total funds for the project to approximately $5,500.
By March 14, they now have to complete the Final Challenge, in which they will reach be-yond their local community to inspire environmental action around the world. Eight first-place teams who succeed in the final challenge will receive $15,000 in grants and scholarships, and two grand-prize-winning teams will receive $30,000.
In brainstorming sessions, the St. James School team has come up with plans to possibly create educational outreach on their solar panel project with We Energies, develop a video with the help of a videographer school parent, and expand their fundraising to include local businesses.
Continuing the challenge
The challenge’s benefits have gone beyond the monetary rewards for the winning team and the solar panel the team may be able to earn for the school, though.
Pignotti said the projects were a good learning experience for her whole class. In their teams they learned how to work together for a common goal and be patient and listen to each other, as well as learned the various skills they needed to put their projects into action. She had confidence that they would compete well against the other teams in the challenge.
“This is an exceptionally driven group of kids,” Pignotti said. “I said to them, when we were sending the projects in, ‘I don’t know these other groups and what they did, but I know you and I know you’re intelligent and I would confidently put you up against them to win.’ I guess I wasn’t far off.”
The experience has also deepened the students’ understanding of their role in protecting God’s creation.
“Being stewards of the earth and protecting the environment is important,” Wright said.
“Praying helps build you spiritually,” Wallace said, “but then you have to go out and take leadership of doing something for him and protecting what he made.
“I don’t want to be the generation you look back on and think, ‘They started this,’” she added. “We want to be the generation they say, ‘They fixed it . . . they helped us move on.’”