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This is a lesson module for Grades 9-12 that explores solar energy in two contexts:  1) its role in providing clean energy solutions, and 2) the use of nanoscience in enabling novel energy conversion mechanisms. After a 1-2 day background preparation, students will build and test a nanocrystalline solar cell, then use critical analysis to connect their lab results with the overall driving question of the unit: how do we use nanotechnology and renewable energy sources to address skyrocketing global demand for fuel and electricity? Includes syllabus, lesson plans, pretest and post-test, free student "infobooks", Power Point lecture materials, and assessment ideas.

NanoSense is an NSF-funded project developed to promote the teaching of nanoscale science at the high school level.
Editor's Note: See Related Materials for an animation that shows the function of two types of solar cells: the silicon semiconductor cell and the dye-sensitized cell (using titanium dioxide nano-particles).
Subjects Levels Resource Types
Classical Mechanics
- Work and Energy
Electricity & Magnetism
- Electromagnetic Radiation
= Electromagnetic Spectrum
- Electromotive Force and Current
= Cells and Batteries
- Semiconductors and Tubes
= Semiconductors
General Physics
- Properties of Matter
Modern Physics
- Nanoscience
Other Sciences
- Chemistry
- High School
- Instructional Material
= Activity
= Instructor Guide/Manual
= Lecture/Presentation
= Lesson/Lesson Plan
= Student Guide
= Unit of Instruction
- Assessment Material
- Tool
= Software
- Audio/Visual
= Image/Image Set
Appropriate Courses Categories Ratings
- Conceptual Physics
- Algebra-based Physics
- AP Physics
- Lesson Plan
- Activity
- Laboratory
- Assessment
- New teachers
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Free access
This material is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license. Additional information is available.
Rights Holder:
SRI International
NSF Number:
PBL, best practice, clean energy, electromagnetic radiation, energy conversion, experiential learning, green energy, high school unit, instructional unit, light, light energy, nanotechnology, photon, photon excitation, photovoltaic cell, photovoltaics, problem-based learning, radiant energy, thermal energy
Record Cloner:
Metadata instance created April 18, 2013 by Caroline Hall
Record Updated:
August 12, 2013 by Lyle Barbato

AAAS Benchmark Alignments (2008 Version)

3. The Nature of Technology

3A. Technology and Science
  • 9-12: 3A/H4. Engineers use knowledge of science and technology, together with strategies of design, to solve practical problems. Scientific knowledge provides a means of estimating what the behavior of things will be even before they are made. Moreover, science often suggests new kinds of behavior that had not even been imagined before, and so leads to new technologies.
3C. Issues in Technology
  • 9-12: 3C/H1. Social and economic forces strongly influence which technologies will be developed and used. Which will prevail is affected by many factors, such as personal values, consumer acceptance, patent laws, the availability of risk capital, the federal budget, local and national regulations, media attention, economic competition, and tax incentives.
  • 9-12: 3C/H3. In deciding on proposals to introduce new technologies or curtail existing ones, some key questions arise concerning possible alternatives, who benefits and who suffers, financial and social costs, possible risks, resources used (human, material, or energy), and waste disposal.

4. The Physical Setting

4E. Energy Transformations
  • 9-12: 4E/H1. Although the various forms of energy appear very different, each can be measured in a way that makes it possible to keep track of how much of one form is converted into another. Whenever the amount of energy in one place diminishes, the amount in other places or forms increases by the same amount.
  • 9-12: 4E/H7. Thermal energy in a system is associated with the disordered motions of its atoms or molecules. Gravitational energy is associated with the separation of mutually attracting masses. Electrical potential energy is associated with the separation of mutually attracting or repelling charges.
4F. Motion
  • 9-12: 4F/H6c. The energy of waves (like any form of energy) can be changed into other forms of energy.
4G. Forces of Nature
  • 9-12: 4G/H4d. Semiconducting materials differ greatly in how well they conduct electrons, depending on the exact composition of the material.
  • 9-12: 4G/H8. The motion of electrons is far more affected by electrical forces than protons are because electrons are much less massive and are outside of the nucleus.

8. The Designed World

8C. Energy Sources and Use
  • 6-8: 8C/M5. Energy from the sun (and the wind and water energy derived from it) is available indefinitely. Because the transfer of energy from these resources is weak and variable, systems are needed to collect and concentrate the energy.
  • 9-12: 8C/H8. Sunlight is the ultimate source of most of the energy we use. The energy in fossil fuels such as oil and coal comes from energy that plants captured from the sun long ago.

11. Common Themes

11A. Systems
  • 9-12: 11A/H2. Understanding how things work and designing solutions to problems of almost any kind can be facilitated by systems analysis. In defining a system, it is important to specify its boundaries and subsystems, indicate its relation to other systems, and identify what its input and output are expected to be.
11C. Constancy and Change
  • 9-12: 11C/H12. Even though a system may appear to be unchanging when viewed macroscopically, there is continual activity of the molecules in the system.
11D. Scale
  • 6-8: 11D/M3. Natural phenomena often involve sizes, durations, and speeds that are extremely small or extremely large. These phenomena may be difficult to appreciate because they involve magnitudes far outside human experience.

12. Habits of Mind

12A. Values and Attitudes
  • 9-12: 12A/H5. Curiosity motivates scientists to ask questions about the world around them and seek answers to those questions. Being open to new ideas motivates scientists to consider ideas that they had not previously considered. Skepticism motivates scientists to question and test their own ideas and those that others propose.
12E. Critical-Response Skills
  • 9-12: 12E/H6a. Notice and criticize arguments in which data, reasoning, or claims are represented as the only ones worth considering, with no mention of other possibilities.
  • 9-12: 12E/H6b. Suggest alternative trade-offs in decisions and designs and criticize those in which major trade-offs are not acknowledged.

This resource is part of a Physics Front Topical Unit.

Topic: Conservation of Energy
Unit Title: Energy Transformation

This four-day lesson module explores this question: how can we use nanotechnology and renewable energy sources to address skyrocketing global demand for fuel and electricity?  Students build & test a nanocrystalline solar cell and critically analyze how solar energy can be part of a global solution. Completely turn-key, with Power Point slides, pretest and post-test, and student infobooks.

Link to Unit:
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Record Link
AIP Format
(SRI International, Menlo Park, 2006), WWW Document, (https://nanosense.sri.com/download/CleanEnergyUnitWithCover.pdf).
NanoSense: Clean Energy: Converting Light Into Energy (SRI International, Menlo Park, 2006), <https://nanosense.sri.com/download/CleanEnergyUnitWithCover.pdf>.
APA Format
NanoSense: Clean Energy: Converting Light Into Energy. (2006). Retrieved April 23, 2024, from SRI International: https://nanosense.sri.com/download/CleanEnergyUnitWithCover.pdf
Chicago Format
SRI International. NanoSense: Clean Energy: Converting Light Into Energy. Menlo Park: SRI International, 2006. https://nanosense.sri.com/download/CleanEnergyUnitWithCover.pdf (accessed 23 April 2024).
MLA Format
NanoSense: Clean Energy: Converting Light Into Energy. Menlo Park: SRI International, 2006. 23 Apr. 2024 <https://nanosense.sri.com/download/CleanEnergyUnitWithCover.pdf>.
BibTeX Export Format
@misc{ Title = {NanoSense: Clean Energy: Converting Light Into Energy}, Publisher = {SRI International}, Volume = {2024}, Number = {23 April 2024}, Year = {2006} }
Refer Export Format

%T NanoSense: Clean Energy: Converting Light Into Energy %D 2006 %I SRI International %C Menlo Park %U https://nanosense.sri.com/download/CleanEnergyUnitWithCover.pdf %O application/pdf

EndNote Export Format

%0 Electronic Source %D 2006 %T NanoSense: Clean Energy: Converting Light Into Energy %I SRI International %V 2024 %N 23 April 2024 %9 application/pdf %U https://nanosense.sri.com/download/CleanEnergyUnitWithCover.pdf

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NanoSense: Clean Energy: Converting Light Into Energy:

Accompanies NanoSense: Solar Cell Animation

A Flash animation that depicts two solar cell systems: the silicon-based cell and the dye-sensitized cell.

relation by Caroline Hall

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