Solar Spotlight


Every year, ComEd gathers students from communities across Chicagoland for Solar Spotlight – a program where students work with mentors to build solar energy projects. The goal: Get young people from diverse backgrounds excited about careers in STEAM. This year, ComEd heard about the work that we do and asked us if it was possible to incorporate solar power into our kits. Alternative energy sources have always been on the roadmap for us to integrate into our units, and this seemed like an excellent opportunity to do so. As you can imagine, we were stoked.


Design & Production

Making a kit for someone else to build requires a lot of upfront work. While we know the ins and outs of the system like the back of our hand, we had to translate a lot of that institutional knowledge into something that a student could understand and act on without us hovering over them. The project had a very quick deadline to meet, which meant that we had to distill everything that we’ve learned over the past few years in a very short time frame. We also needed to completely redesign and standardize some of the more bespoke aspects of our past builds. We had to go from prototype to shippable units in a very short amount of time, which was quite the adventure.

Goodbye sleep. Talk to you in a month.


Hyperlocal Fabrication

We knew that 3D printing was the answer for custom fabricating all the parts that we needed for these kits, but the short turnaround time and surprisingly high cost of outsourcing 3D printing prevented us from using a third party.  After calling everyone we knew with a 3D printer in Chicago, we ended up borrowing four Makerbots and buying a Lulzbot TAZ 6 to print the larger components. Justin had three printers and Roman had two, and they ended up running prints night and day for the better part of three weeks. We were setting alarms at all hours of the night to get up, unload a finished piece, and then kick off a new print.

We got all 37 sets–more than 500 individual pieces–done in the nick of time.


Writing the Assembly Guide

We created an online Assembly Guide to get everything out of our heads and into a format that the students could work with. Around 133 steps to building your very own mushroom grow box, which sounds like a lot, but was actually very manageable to work through in the three hour window we had with the students.

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Making the “A” in STEAM Stand for Agriculture

We loaded into ComEd’s training center on the South Side of Chicago very early on the morning of the event. The 50+ high schoolers made an agreement with ComEd to come out at 8:30AM on two Saturdays in a row to learn about STEAM–that’s how motivated these kids were. All in all, there were the students, 37 Builder’s Kits, 22 mentors, event staff, film crews, DJ Buckwild dropping beats, Frankie Robinson of WGCI mc’ing for us, and the CEO of ComEd himself, Joe Dominguez. Joe gave a speech that centered the focus for the day–ComEd was making an investment in these students because they would be the future of the company in a few years’ time.

Over the course of three hours, teams of two students and one ComEd mentor dug in and assembled our Builder’s Kits. Holes were pre-drilled and soldering was complete, but everything else was built from scratch using a small set of tools and the Assembly Guide. Students who had never even stripped a wire before were soon completing the entire wiring harness and attaching everything to the single-board computers we use in the brain of the unit.

By the end, everyone was thrilled. Some had finished, some were close, but all were engaged and excited.

Move over ‘Arts’, ‘Agriculture’ is taking your spot.


Extending Our Impact

The three hours that we had with the students isn’t enough time for them to see the Builder’s Kit in action. Our units can turn around mushrooms in around a week, and we wanted to make sure that all of the students had a chance to experience that. We had a few active grows present on-site so that everyone could understand what they were building towards, but the end goal was to send these units back to the schools and integrate them into the classroom. We took all of the student-assembled units back to our workshop after the event to make sure that everything was working correctly, but we’ll be sending them back to the schools along with a few starter substrate blocks and a preview of the curriculum we’ve built in the next few months. We want to get the students and teachers excited about the prospect of growing their own food, conducting science experiments, and learning a good deal about STEAM and IoT in their day-to-day in the classrooms, not just at this one event.


Priming the Pump

While we could have walked away from the event and been completely happy with what we accomplished, the work wasn’t done yet. We needed to get the word out about how awesome these students are!

A number of local news stations covered this positive news story about our excellent base of students in Chicago. Roman went on Windy City Live with a CPS student and one of the lead mentors from ComEd, Brittanie Mullings. Justin, a student, and Shawn Daniel, another lead mentor from ComEd, were featured on WGN’s People to People segment. It was great to spread the word about what we’ve been working on, but the icing on the cake was when Val Warner from ABC7 loved our mushrooms so much that she finished them after we wrapped taping!

We’ve got a lot more to do with ComEd and the Solar Spotlight program, and we can’t wait to see where it takes us next.


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