Petaluma students win sustainable award, trip

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A Petaluma high school teacher and two of her students are headed to Ecuador next spring after winning a competition focused on environmental sustainability.

Jessica Dennen, a science teacher at Sonoma Mountain and Carpe Diem alternative high schools, and her class were selected from among other schools across California for the PG&E Solar Suitcase honor.

The two-fold project is designed to get students thinking locally as well as globally. The competition provides materials to students to build portable solar power generators, which will be donated to people living in countries without electricity. Students also undertake an environmental project closer to home.

Dennen’s class was honored for their work planting trees and restoring the environment at Steamer Landing Park, in partnership with Friends of the Petaluma River.

“It was a student-driven project,” said Dennen, who has taught in Petaluma for 14 years. “I felt like we earned this honor. I’m so proud of my students for their hard work.”

Dennen held an essay contest to select two of her 50 science students to accompany her on the trip to Ecuador. Noah Pacheco, 16, a junior at Sonoma Mountain, and Lindsey Boyd, 16, a junior at Carpe Diem, will be traveling in March to Ecuador for 12 days. From the capital, they will venture into a remote jungle region to give local villagers the solar suitcases, which can light up a room and charge a cell phone for several hours each night.

Both students said they were excited for the adventure.

“It’s going to be an amazing trip,” said Boyd, who has previously visited Europe. “I have always wanted to help people who don’t have access to the things we have. I feel like it will help me realize you can’t take things for granted. We have to be happy with what we have.”

For Pacheco, this will be his first time outside the United States.

“I’m hoping to learn how other people live,” he said. “When I come back I plan on presenting everything I’ve learned.”

Dennen said she had help in the project from co-teacher Shiloh Winders. Gregory Stevenson, principal, Sonoma Mountain and Carpe Diem high schools, said the trip will be a life changing experience for Dennen and her students.

“Ms. Dennen, along with the students of Sonoma Mountain and Carpe Diem High Schools, have done an amazing job embracing this service learning sustainability project that will benefit our local community for years to come,” he said. “They have put into practice what it means to be excellent stewards of our environment. In turn, they are connecting to our local community and making connections on a global level.”

We Care Solar, a Berkeley-based nonprofit, designed the solar suitcases, and PG&E has provided more than 200 kits to nearly 50 high schools and nonprofit organizations throughout Northern and Central California. It is part of the company’s $400,000 sponsorship to provide sustainable energy project opportunities for local youth.

“These students have proven that they are energy-smart environmental leaders and have earned a rare opportunity to apply their classroom education to solve real-world sustainability challenges,” said Travis Kiyota, PG&E vice president of California external affairs. “Although this trip might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the impact will be felt over the years as they return home.”

(Contact Matt Brown at

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