The Conn Center's renewable energy camp was held in partnership with the federal Promise Zone, an area comprised of Bell, Harlan, Letcher, Perry, Leslie, Clay, Knox and part of Whitley counties.

They arrived at the University of Louisville with a truth they had known all their lives: Coal is not only a source of energy, it puts food in their mouths and clothes on their backs. And it is going away.

A week later, on their last day of a summer camp where they learned the basics of renewable energy, these same students left with a spark of something new for the future.

High school students from Kentucky’s “Promise Zone” talk about building rechargeable lithium ion batteries during a UofL summer camp on renewable energy. LtoR: Christopher Hobbs, of Bell Co.; Devyn Shoemaker, of Harlan Co.; Grecia Lasley, of Bell Co.; and Peyton Mills, of Knox Co.

About 30 high school students from eastern Kentucky’s “Promise Zone” on July 21 concluded the research camp at the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research. Their presentations on subjects like solar energy and lithium ion batteries seemed to surprise even themselves.

“I came here knowing I wanted to be an engineer,” said Hayley Fulton, 14, who will be sophomore at Letcher County Central High school this fall. “I was clueless and now I know all this stuff and I’m just like, ‘Wow.’”

The camp at the center, which is part of UofL’s J.B. Speed School of Engineering, was in partnership with the federal Promise Zone, an area comprised of Bell, Harlan, Letcher, Perry, Leslie, Clay, Knox and part of Whitley counties. Its goal is to improve the overall quality of life in the 3,071-square-mile region. The white lab coats some students wore bore the saying “It’s a Promise” on the back.

“Solar energy is very important because nowadays we rely on a lot of non-renewable energy sources,” said Kaden Gray, 16, a junior at Lynn Camp High School in Knox County. “By utilizing solar energy, we can not only fix the problem, but bring back a lot of lost jobs to our areas. All these labs, the amount of stuff we learned that had to do with what I thought to be a simple concept, really blew my mind.”

The camp was designed to broaden interest in STEM careers, and many students said they are looking at careers in engineering, medicine, nursing and marine biology.

Asher Terry, 14, a Letcher County Central sophomore, said he wanted to learn more about STEM careers even though he’s an aspiring lawyer.

“I learned about solar cells and how they work,” he said. “I learned that coal isn’t all that because it’ll run out one day and we need some kind of renewable energy.”

The students said the importance of teamwork and respect were added lessons. They also made some good friends along the way.

“Today is going to be very hard for me because half these kids I probably will never have the chance to meet or see again,” said Gracie Moles, 14, a sophomore at Middlesboro High School.

The students spent the week on Belknap Campus in a dormitory, and in between labs they saw the sights of Louisville, such as the Slugger Museum and the Speed Art Museum. Interim UofL President Greg Postel and Interim Speed School Dean Gail DePuy met with them Friday and answered questions about scholarships, honors classes, tuition and housing.

Kentucky’s Promise Zone was designated in 2014 as the first rural Promise Zone in the nation. There are 21 other Promise Zone communities nationwide.

Check out more from the camp in the video below: