The Solar Women Summer Series continues! Meet Elizabeth Case and Rachel Woods-Robinson, the young women behind Cycle For Science, a cross-country education initiative and journey.


What is Cycle For Science? Why did you set out on this journey?

Rachel: Cycle for Science is both a journey and a cause. Elizabeth and I decided to bicycle across the country because we wanted an adventure — one that seemed huge, infeasible, daunting. And we wanted to see the country, especially the nature and the people in states we’d never been to.

But we wanted to also use this journey as an excuse to learn a little bit more about the things we are passionate about. As young scientists, we were curious about how science was taught across the county and how the political, social, and economic climates we planned to bike through shape science education. In particular, I was curious about how (and if) renewable energy and climate science was taught in different parts of the country. We hoped to shed light on some of the remarkable and innovative work teachers are doing in different states to inspire their students.

Simultaneously, we wanted to use ourselves as, sort of, bicycle messengers. We wanted to share some of our experiences as women in science, talk about why science is fascinating to us, and sprinkle hands-on science lessons across the country. We chose to focus specifically on a solar energy demo in order to get kids thinking about where their energy comes from and the increasing importance of renewable energy.

So Cycle for Science was born. From April 17 to July 14, 2015, Elizabeth and I bicycled from San Francisco to New York City and stopped along the way in grade schools and summer camps to teach hands-on lessons about bicycles, physics, and solar energy.

What are your backgrounds in Science?

Rachel (left)
: Though we are now both women in science, we actually didn’t start off that way — Elizabeth entered university as an English major planning on a career in journalism, and I was a trombonist in the ethnomusicology department. I accidentally got interested in physics the summer before entering college (I never even took a physics class in high school), and at UCLA signed up on a whim for a freshman physics seminar called the Arrow of Time. That’s where I met Elizabeth.

To me physics revealed a whole new perspective from which to understand the world, both the visible stuff and the invisible energy, (or wait, are they the same thing?) and with a physics mindset, I could simultaneously be humbled by the power of nature and think about how to tackle some of the global and social issues I’m passionate about; in particular, the world’s energy crisis and need for renewable energy. So I switched my major to physics, and Elizabeth did too, and we set off on the hopeless path to understand quantum mechanics… in the basement of the UCLA physics building. Which was also where Cycle for Science was first conceived!

Since then I’ve done most of my research on renewable energy and solid state physics, and now I’m working at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab making new electronic materials to be used in solar cells to make them more efficient. I’m fascinated by how the teeny nanoscale properties of a material, visible only by fancy microscopes or x-ray synchrotrons, can reveal so much about how it behaves as a whole. Elizabeth just started grad school in mechanical engineering at Cornell last week (!) and is planning to research technologies to democratize health care, so watch out, soon she’ll be changing the world.


We also both firmly believe it is our role as scientists to clearly and effectively communicate our research to the non-scientific public, and to reach out to the younger generations — actually, all generations — to get them excited about science.


Advances in, for example, climate science, or semiconductor technology, are drastically intertwined withlizprof global and local policy, economics, and every day life, and so people in all sorts of careers need to understand the basics. Elizabeth (right) and I both have experience tutoring and teaching science demos to kids of all ages, and have made demos in the past to use at science education events. Liz worked as a science and environmental journalist last year, and is a phenomenal science writer (read her piece on Putah Creek for proof!) At UCLA I started Ecochella, a concert powered entirely by bicycles, to raise awareness about science and renewable energy in a fun, interactive way.

What is the Sol Cycle? How does it work?

The Sol Cycle is a 3d printed science education demo Elizabeth and I designed, created, and carried with us across the country. The goal of our lessons was to teach about bicycles, physics, and renewable energy in a hands-on, interactive, exciting way.

The Sol Cycle is essentially a miniature 3d printed bicycle with a solar panel on top (see the picture below!) Upon solar illumination, the solar panel sends a current to a motor, which is connected by a rubber band to the back gear hub, and causes the bicycle wheel to spin and the bike to zooooom across the classroom. To demonstrate energy conversion, we actually had the kids act out how the Sol Cycles work before we passed them out. We’d have four students volunteer to be the sun, a silicon nucleus, a valence electron, and a motor. The sun would toss a starburst (aka a photon) to the electron, who’d absorb it, “break free” from its “parent” nucleus, transfer it to the motor, and then sulk back to its “parent” nucleus as the motor started spinning. Some of the electrons got really excited about being “free”, and did laps around the classroom while shrieking.

The bike itself is pretty simple – the only components besides the 3d printed parts are a solar panel, a motor, wires, nut and bolts, and rubber bands. In our lessons we would divide the students into groups, give them the components, have them figure out how to put it all together, and then take them outside to let the Sol Cycles loose (well, when it wasn’t thunder storming.) We were just there to help answer their questions as they arose, and sometimes to pose new ones. Why is the bike going backwards? What if the wires touch? (No, it won’t explode, you can try it.) Why does it go slower on gravel? Will it run if you use an LED flashlight instead of the sun? What happens when you cover the solar panel? Half of it? How big would a solar panel have to be to push us and all our gear across the country? It was exciting to see how much they could figure out on their own with just a little prompting.


What did the 3D printing process look like?

Rachel: I said the demo was simple – but the design and printing process was madness! At first.

3D printing was brand new to both of us when we started working on the Sol Cycle, and our first attempts consisted of printer failures and mangled filament. The biggest challenge was designing a working prototype while simultaneously confronting the 3D printing learning curve… and in only a couple months, since we are connoisseurs of the art of procrastination. Our first prototype was pretty comical – not only did it not move, but it couldn’t stand up without toppling over. For our Indiegogo campaign (where we raised money for the educational component of the trip) we had to duct tape various parts together and hold the wheels on to get a usable head shot.

But this meant there was massive room for improvement and so much to learn! Elizabeth became involved in a maker space in Sacramento, and I got a membership to the CITRIS Invention Lab at UC Berkeley. We worked through a bunch more comical iterations. I’ll admit, we actually designed the whole thing on an open source program for kids called “Tinkercad” because we’d never CADed before.

There were many late nights and last minute scrambling and tinkering and tinkercading, of course. But I guess we taught ourselves enough to make it work! It was pretty gratifying. I remember when I tested the first working one, a middle school student happened to walk by and shouted, “Is that a 3d printed bike? COOL!”

And then, when we finally made it zoom along, there was finding a way to print ~25 Sol Cycles so we could leave some in schools along the way. We ended up getting them printed via 3D Hubs, which turned out wonderfully, and had some shipped to us along the way.

Also, I’ll admit: the Sol Cycles we ended up taking with us are very much unfinished. There are many improvements or additions that could be made. But we used this to our advantage, and had the kids brainstorm ways they could improve the Sol Cycle to make a “Sol Cycle 2.0.” One boy in La Porte, Indiana, described an elaborate design for lightweight training wheels, and started working on the CAD model at the end of the lesson!

Elizabeth: I think it was actually for better that the Sol Cycle was imperfect. When something works exactly like it’s supposed to, it doesn’t trigger the imagination quite like trying to figure out how to get something that should work, to work. We ended up figuring out that the kids learned they could have ownership over this project — they could take it to the next level, they could make something better or new, because what we showed them wasn’t a perfect product, it was a work-in-progress, and that takes a whole lot of stress out of invention.

Top three most memorable moments from your cross-country journey?

  1. Rachel: Teaching-wise, it was the moments interacting with kids after our lessons that really reaffirmed why we did this trip. One of my favorites was in Boise after we taught a lesson at Hidden Springs elementary school. A group of fifth grade girls came up to us after the lesson and started flooded us with questions about science. One girl marched up to me and asserted: “I want to do what you do when I grow up.” I asked her what she meant, and she replied “bike across the country AND be a scientist!” It made my heart melt! At the end of a lesson in Philadelphia with a group of Burmese refugee students, an eleventh grader who’d initially boasted “I hate science” told us, bright-eyed, that she was now interested in studying the role of international relations in renewable energy and science. These interactions were so powerful and were a reminder of how important interactive, inquisitive-based scientific learning is.
  2. Rachel: BEAR. Yeah, this moment has to make the cut because we came nearly face to face with a GRIZZLY BEAR, and on the same day we climbed the Great Divide in Wyoming. It was on the side of the road, and made lingering eye contact with us. Fortunately for us it was distracted by the rodent dangling out of its mouth. Elizabeth and I felt an intense fight or flight moment — we chose the latter, and raw adrenaline pushed us up the rest of the Rockies to the highest point of the entire trip (10,000 feet). Then, as we were drinking in the glory of the top of the country, a car pulls up. Karen pops her head out of the window and says “Y’all sure looked funny back there!” Turns out she and her husband, Dwayne, watched us flee from becoming dinner. We started talking, they told us they were from Louisiana and recently moved out to Wyoming and we talked about our trip. After only a few minutes, they offered us a warm bed, showers, and a delicious southern-style meal in their house in Riverton the next day! This was just one of many many moments on the trip where we were just drenched with overwhelming kindness from complete strangers, after knowing them for only minutes.
  3. Elizabeth: We were camping near Sandusky Bay, and the storm that night was terrible: blowing winds, heavy rains, lightning, all of it. We were exhausted when we woke up in the morning, to find that a camper van had pulled in next to us late in the night. It turned out to be a dad taking his three young children on the road trip, and his youngest one, his only daughter, was having a really tough time being away from home. I was one of those kids who was always homesick for mom when I wasn’t right next to her, and so really sympathized with that overwhelming sense of longing. We had a few extra Sol Cycles with us; I grabbed the purple one a girl from Yuba City, Calif. had named Sunny and walked the four-year-old through putting it together. When it actually moved (rolled right past the oatmeal off the table!), she smiled a little, and then started giggling and playing with the angle of the solar panel to see if she could get it to move any faster (that’s a little scientist right there!) We gave it to her to keep… hopefully that brought a little sunshine back into the road trip, even if mom wasn’t there. It was moments like these — when so much was given to us, when we were able to give a little back — that made Cycle for Science so much more than your standard trip or a vacation, and gave us a whole new sense of gratitude, kindness, selflessness, and graciousness.

If you could give one piece of advice to a recent graduate (of any major/background) what would it be?

Rachel: Bike across the country! But, really, just do something that pushes you into unknown or maybe even uncomfortable territory. Biking across the country was our way to do this. Ok, obviously life after college is going to be unknown and uncomfortable. But what I mean is– go somewhere new, talk to people you might not otherwise talk to, or just try thinking about an opinion you hold firmly from a different perspective. Biking across the country opened our eyes to some of the richness and diversity of the country, and how different environments shape the way people think and act. It was so powerful to see this.

Also, I realized sometimes the most meaningful changes or realizations are the ones that happen slowly, one little piece at a time. Solving the energy crisis is not going to happen overnight. So be patient with yourself, sit down (on or off a bike) to think about what you really care about, and focus on that!

Elizabeth: Know that you now have the freedom — and responsibility — to build your own structure, and reevaluate your beliefs, traditions, and morals. You graduated from college? What are you going to do with that privilege? If you’ve got the chops and the gumption, you’re going to do great things, but you can’t always get where you want to be on your own. So ask often, ask big. I don’t mean ask permission — I mean ask for things you can’t get on your own and you don’t think anyone will give you.

Tell us one really inventive teaching method you came across in your travels.

In Boise, the science teacher Go Pro’d many of his classes, especially during experiments, and would make a small movie at the end of the week that he shared with parents. This allowed kids to review and remember what they did, as well as involve parents, give them context for the science the kids are learning, and encourage them to continue the learning that’s happening in the classroom, at home.

What did your five year old self want to do? Is what you’re doing now similar to your childhood dream(s)?

Rachel: I always wanted to be a creative writer. Kind of ironic because it’s Liz who’s the writer, and my younger sister is a writer too. I still love to scribble, and being a strong writer is essential in science for communicating research and ideas. When I was five I obviously read the Magic School Bus books (mostly to giggle at Miss Frizzle’s dresses), but to be honest as a kid I had no idea what being a scientist meant, no clue it was even a possibility for me, and very little interest in whatever it was. It never crossed my radar until my last year of high school when I read my first astronomy book (Cosmos, the book version of the TV series.) I realized that science requires creativity and writing, so in a roundabout way, yes, my five year old self would be so proud.

Elizabeth: I spent fourth grade introducing myself as the “future first female president of America,” but looks like I’m getting beat to it (that’s a good thing.) From then onwards, I was pretty convinced I’d be a novelist — aced grammar tests, went to creative writing camps, etc. But- just like Rachel, I didn’t know what it meant to be a scientist, had no concept of science as a creative endeavor. For most of college, even, I was working toward being a journalist. I didn’t eve consider graduate school, or a future in science, until my final year in university.

Favorite state you biked through?

Rachel: Hmm… Idaho! Mountains, forest, hot springs, desert, craters of the moon, best ice cream in the world (Reed’s dairy), Boise bicycle week, morel mushrooms, Teton valley, so much green! Oh, but Wyoming was also amazing, the skies were wide open and we biked through canyons and Tetons and rainbows. It’s hard to say. I think the “favorite”ness was shaped by the people we met, and in every single state we experienced the selflessness and kindness from complete strangers. It was incredible.

Elizabeth: I’ve got to go with Wyoming — we encountered such incredible beauty there, and every day was one of those days I actually understood why I was bicycling across America. The Grand Tetons of course, and the Great Divide, but also the around Wind River Indian Reservation. That day was spent under a tiny patch of blue sky, sandwiched between two immense, brooding thunderstorms, pedaling through rich red canyons and lush, green grassland, as rainbows danced along the mesas in the distance.

Now that the trip is complete, what’s next for you two?

Rachel: I am back to work at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, researching transparent conducting materials for solar cells. I’m applying to start my PhD next year and study materials science for renewable energy applications, but I’m not sure where yet.

Elizabeth: I just started a doctorate program at Cornell in mechanical engineering. But not before a quick trip to Alaska and a road trip back across the country!

We’re also trying to figure out what direction we want to take Cycle for Science. We both want CFS to last longer than just the summer, and we have a number of ideas about the direction an non-profit could take to keep the dream alive: scientists on the roads and in the classroom across America.

In your opinion, how can educators get their students more involved in solar and renewable technology?

As with anything, you have to make it relevant to the kids’ daily lives. For most elementary and middle-school aged kids, the world is a pretty small place: your home, your community, your school, maybe as big as where you have extended family. Helping them understand what kinds of renewable energy they either 1) use as it comes packaged from their utilities company or 2) could be using, given the environment they live in, is vital.

Thank you, Elizabeth and Rachel!


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