NEW CANAAN — What do New Canaan High School and Nambale Magnet School in Kenya have in common? Within the next few years, both will have solar panels thanks to the efforts of New Canaan High School freshmen Megan Rigione, John Renda and Shea Smith. The three recently won the Wilburn Fellowship, a $3,000 cash prize they’ll use to bring renewable energy to Kenya and New Canaan.

While many high school students spend their free time playing sports or video games, this group of students decided to focus on spreading reusable energy in their spare time. Their interest sparked when they were eighth-graders at Saxe Middle School in STEM teacher Vivian Birdsall’s class.

“They came in eighth grade and they were so full of ideas,” Birdsall said. “They wanted to do something globally and I gave them an avenue.”

Birdsall was also the one to connect the students with the Nambale Magnet School. The Saxe teacher learned about it from a past student’s family. The school is the first of its kind, addressing the needs of children orphaned by the AIDS crisis.

“Half of the children there are orphans,” Birdsall said.

Since many of the Kenyan students depend on their school for resources, sustainability is a huge focus there. The Nambale Magnet School

producing milk, eggs and vegetables, feeding them to the children and selling those goods to the community.

The goal, however, is for the school to become more self-sustaining over time, something that spurred on the New Canaan freshmen to lend their help.

“The concept of sustainability has been in all our heads,” Renda said. “We’ve been talking about it for over a year now. We saw the fellowship could provide good funding to get it done.”

The students previously raised funds for Nambale, building a playground and a food wall — stacked garden boxes — to help grow crops in a more sustainable manner. They all knew each other from grades past and decided to put their interests and talents together to make a difference.

The 14-year-old said

The trio found out about the Wilburn Fellowship thanks to a group of representatives who came through the high school and through Smith’s mom. In October, the New Canaan teenagers applied for the grant given to a group of high school students who bring communities together.

“We wanted to focus on climate change and we thought focusing on renewable energy would bring the communities together,” 15-year-old Rigione said. “It was such an interesting idea to bring two communities together. We have so much history with this school. It was the perfect opportunity.”

The students were selected as semi-finalists, winning a $1,000 grant. Then they found out they were co-winners of the fellowship, receiving an additional $2,000 to go toward putting up solar panels at Nambale.

The students used the initial $1,000 of grant money to purchase six solar panels to go on New Canaan High School. They hope to install the panels before the beginning of the next school year and have already received approval from Bill Egan, principal at the high school, as well as Superintendent Bryan Luizzi. The panels will help power a charging station for mobile devices.

“It’s the test runner for the other project,” Renda explained. “We want it to ideally be universal.”

The students purchased the panels after doing extensive research on which panels would be ideal for the school. After speaking with Luizzi, the students realized the panels will be the first form of renewable energy in the New Canaan schools. With his support, they plan to continue to expand the project.

“We were struck by the vast difference that a school with an economic advantage is so behind with renewable energy,” Smith, 14, said. “If we can do it, the district can.”

“This is a direction Dr. Luizzi wants to go in,” Birdsall added. “It’s an introduction into having less of a carbon footprint.”

The high schoolers have a four-year plan to continue the project throughout their time in New Canaan. Potential strategies so far include additional fundraising, as well as a trip to Kenya to help with the installation of the solar panels.

The students hope to make both their own district and Nambale more sustainable by going solar.

“We plan to take this all the way to senior year, even beyond that,” Rigione said. “It’s amazing how simple this idea is because it’s so accessible to everyone.”

The three freshmen work on the project independent of any club or class, with only the assistance of Birdsall who acts as an adviser.

“Climate change is such a global issue” Renda said. “If we can combat this in any way, that’s what we want to do in our free time.”; @erin_kayata