Woodside school seventh-grader designs award-winning, cost-efficient solar device

Georgia Hutchinson won a first prize at state science and engineering fair

Jennifer Parker (right), a Woodside Elementary School science teacher, looks on as Georgia Hutchinson adjusts the solar tracking device that the seventh-grader won a first prize for at the California Science and Engineering Fair. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova/The Almanac)

Georgia Hutchinson has the curious, nimble and result-driven mind of an engineer.

The Woodside resident hopes to soon get a patent for an award-winning project she engineered this year, a device that could reduce the cost of producing solar energy by 40 percent. She also recently made a well-received presentation to Peninsula Clean Energy's board about the project.

Georgia, however, isn't the founder of a Silicon Valley startup or a Stanford professor -- she's a seventh-grader at Woodside Elementary School, and the project was her entry in the school's STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Fair this year.

At the age of 13, Georgia has already been to the state Science and Engineering Fair twice. This year, she won first place in the middle school alternative energy division for the device she designed, built and programmed. It allows solar panels to follow the sun for maximum energy production. Instead of using an expensive optical sensor, however, it uses a program she wrote that takes advantage of the fact that where the sun will be at a given time, date and location can be mathematically determined.

Her device does that while costing an estimated 60 percent less than current solar tracking technology.

Existing devices that help solar panels follow the sun use optical sensors that drive their cost up to between $3,000 and $4,000 for one full-sized panel, which can produce 200 watts of electricity, Georgia says.

She estimates that making her device in the same size would cost only about $200.

Georgia made a mathematical model that showed a solar panel using her tracking device would produce 190 percent of the energy of a fixed panel. Her field tests matched the model's results.

As sixth-graders, Georgia and her partner, Woodsider Linus Upson, won second place in the physics division at the state science fair for their particle physics experiment. They built a cloud chamber and tested how the density of different materials would affect the number of charged particles created in the chamber.

Georgia says the idea for the solar tracker came to her during a long drive to view the eclipse in Corvallis, Oregon, in August.

Her uncle had talked about how it could take decades to pay back his recent investment in solar panels. "I thought, 'Solar power needs to be cheaper,'" she says, and she began pondering how to drive down the cost or increase the efficiency of solar panels.

She found that panels that tilt to follow the sun produce more energy, and thought of a less expensive way to make them do so. "If we know exactly where the eclipse will be, and when it's going to happen," we also know where the sun will be at other times, she thought.

Putting the project together included using computer-aided design to fashion the project; using a laser cutter and a computer-programmed cutting router to make steel and plastic gears; programming a tiny Rasberry Pi computer; and soldering parts together.

Georgia says the first time she tried to solder her circuit board, she blew it up.

She did much of the work in Woodside Elementary's Design Lab, but had to borrow some of the equipment. Students in the engineering class she's now taking at Woodside are currently building a CNC (computer numerical control) router, and the school also has a laser cutter, Georgia says, "so in the future I'll be able to cut out all my prototypes there."

While her parents, Rob and Christine Hutchinson, were very supportive, they are both in finance, not engineering, so they weren't a lot of help with building the project, Georgia says. "They are not computer programmers," she says.

After Georgia's project won a first place at her school, Georgia in March received first place in her category at the San Mateo County STEM Fair, run by the county Office of Education. She also received awards there from Peninsula Clean Energy's board and IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers).

Georgia also qualified for the Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars) nationwide student competition. She'll learn if hers is one of the top 300 projects in September.

One of 800 students who went to Los Angeles for the California Science and Engineering Fair, Georgia won a Saban Foundation award and $1,250 for best female-led, socially conscious middle school project. She plans to spend the money on future projects, including a bigger solar tracker prototype made with aluminum.

Her next project might be trying to figure out how to make solar panels more effective, Georgia says.

Georgia fell in love with computer programming when, as a first-grader, she used a simple programming language called Scratch to animate the life cycle of a flower.

By third grade she was helping teach her classmates Scratch programming. She took a Python programming class, where she was the only girl.

"More girls should code," she remembers thinking. So, in fourth grade, she started an all-girls programming club called the WES Codettes, made up of fourth- to eighth-graders who all studied Python together.

"If more girls would do it, then even more would join in," she says. The club "really started my love of programming."

But she thinks she wants a career as a mechanical engineer, not a computer programmer. "I really love robotics," Georgia says. She loves thinking of problems, solving them, and sharing the solutions with the world.

"I want to program the robots and then build them, too," she says.

Georgia says one of the benefits of her recent science fair competitions is meeting other like-minded students. "It is really fun to hang out with kids who are total nerds," she says. Many of those she met at the state competition have arranged to meet up again soon, she says.

As for her recent presentation to the Peninsula Clean Energy board, Atherton City Council member Rick DeGolia, who is the board's vice chair, says they were "very impressed with the potential that Georgia's project demonstrated to increase the efficiency of rooftop solar installations, and with her remarkable command of the technical issues."

So impressed, says DeGolia, that he's trying to figure out how to get Georgia to intern with the organization, a consortium of San Mateo County local governments that offers electricity from renewable sources to the county's energy consumers.


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2 people like this
Posted by Michael
a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge
on Jun 9, 2018 at 6:13 pm

This is awesome! This reminds me of when I was a kid. I was always building things, although probably not as sophisticated as what Georgia built at her age. Great job! Keep going with your innovation. And, yes, more girls should get into coding.

Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 21, 2018 at 9:15 pm

Yay smart kids! Keep it up. :)

But please don't expect a patent. This idea is not at all new.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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