Instead of the three R’s, today’s students learn the three W’s: wind, water and warming. They’re discovering how to apply energy knowledge at home and for careers they will pursue in the future. Learning about energy in a real hands-on way, they roll up their sleeves and get dirty, oily, wet, and tired.
The National Energy Education Development Project, known as NEED, develops curriculum for students in grades kindergarten through 12 as well as for some community colleges. Students learn about traditional forms of energy such as coal, oil, uranium, and natural gas, as well as renewable sources including hydropower, solar, and wind. They also learn how to use West Virginia’s vast energy resources more wisely. They learn about efficiency technologies and how West Virginia’s power plants are producing electricity more efficiently and cleaner today, and how to reduce electricity and gas use at home while still getting to play video games, cook food, and keep the lights on. Today’s students are smart energy consumers.
Wayne Yonkelowitz and Linda Fonner are NEED’s facilitators in West Virginia, having taught NEED curriculum in their classrooms for many years. NEED has trained more than 300 West Virginia teachers to integrate energy into the classroom, but there are still more teachers to reach. Fonner and Yonkelowitz provide training around the state when NEED has a sponsor offering to support energy workshops and curriculum for West Virginia teachers. Yonkelowitz teaches eighth grade at Fayetteville High School and Fonner teaches fifth grade at New Martinsville School.
“NEED is the most teacher-friendly, student-oriented program I have used in my 31 years of teaching,” Fonner says. “It also brings about good testing results that are important for accountability. Ninety-four percent of my students correctly answered state level testing questions dealing with renewable and non-renewable energy sources. This was much higher than the state average.” The students learn and the results are measurable.
The program is designed for students to learn with hands-on activities instead of sitting at their desks listening to a teacher’s lecture. The students follow NEED’s Kids Teaching Kids approach and become teachers themselves. “As a teacher, I have to know the content really well because I have to deliver it in class. My students know that to teach the lessons, they have to really study and prepare. It is an excellent leadership experience for them,” observed Yonkelowitz.
“Students actually do things in the classroom that an engineer might do on the job,” Fonner says. “They build their own wind turbines and learn how the pitch of the blades can affect speed, and therefore affect how much electricity is generated. Then they can alter the blades to improve the electricity production. They consider how much electricity their home uses, and then they can understand how many wind turbines it may take to generate enough for their town, too.”
Yonkelowitz also incorporates lessons in which the students actively participate – inquiring about a hypothesis and what they believe may be the solution to a given problem. “We do skits and simulations to show how a hydrogen fuel cell works,” he says. “Some students are hydrogen, some are oxygen. We illustrate how the chemicals join together to produce energy. We have started using a similar activity for students to understand the carbon cycle as part of NEED’s new climate module.”
The hands-on nature of the NEED program also helps students who may not be successful in traditional subjects or the traditional classroom. “I especially like how these activities really make a difference to some students who have trouble with reading,” Fonner says. “They learn better this way than they would if they were just reading the material in a textbook.” Some students can apply their knowledge of science and NEED’s activities in career and technology education classes. This allows students who are interested in becoming electricians and energy installers to put what they’ve learned toward a future career.
The students also learn all aspects of controversial issues such as climate change. “They figure out that there’s no simple solution to the energy challenges we face,” Yonkelowitz says. “They understand the pros and cons of each source of energy and can make educated and intelligent decisions, not decisions based on the emotional arguments they read in the paper. The students understand that they are part of the future technological advances that may mitigate climate change. Students also know that their personal decisions – electricity use at home, carpooling, turning off the lights when they leave a classroom – are all part of using our resources more wisely.”
For example, a classroom discussion might involve the advantages and disadvantages of wind turbines. “The students know the argument against wind turbines is they might not be that attractive to look at or that they may harm birds or bats,” Yonkelowitz says. “But when we talk about where we get electricity now, they compare a coal plant’s stack to a turbine and realize there’s not much difference in terms of what they look like. It gets them to think and change their perspective. They also do the math to understand the difference between how much electricity a coal plant produces and how many wind turbines it would take to produce the same amount of electricity.”
Students are taking what they’re learning outside the boundaries of the classroom and school day. Students participate in after-school programs related to energy at New Martinsville and they take lessons home to share with their families, too. Energy clubs are a great way to engage students and to keep students who may not show a deep interest in the subject during the school day actively interested in learning. In 2009, Fonner’s club made an energy time capsule that included current gasoline and electricity prices, current news articles, and their thoughts about energy. They buried it on the school property with a plaque and instructions to open it in 25 years. Members of the club also visited a local hydropower plant and a coal power plant.
They’re also learning on a global scale. “My students kept in touch with a plant manager from a local utility who was in charge of a coal power plant in China,” Fonner says. “They compared and contrasted the plant there with the one in our area. We use a program called Thinkquest that is free to school systems. Students use it to develop their own Web pages and easily communicate with students in other countries. They ask them questions, send them surveys, and exchange information with them. I put an energy unit on this site so teachers can see the NEED program and material we work with. I love the international exchange aspect of it and it is a great way for our students to get to know people from other cultures. Some of these connections may be valuable to our students as they seek careers in an increasingly interconnected global energy community.”
NEED is always evolving to address changing technology and fulfill the needs of the state education curriculum. “Teachers across West Virginia have voiced a need for more activities addressing climate change and renewable energy,” Yonkelowitz says. “So, NEED launched modules on climate change, expanding wind, water, and solar modules, and recently added a Carbon Capture and Storage module. We want to hear from teachers about what is or isn’t working in the classroom setting so we can adapt the curriculum to meet those needs. Teachers who attended the U.S. Department of Energy funded Carbon Capture and Storage workshop in October at AEP’s Mountaineer Plant in New Haven provided valuable feedback to that new curriculum module. NEED makes those adaptations to give teachers resources that are usable immediately in the classroom.”
The benefits of the NEED program will last well beyond a student’s time in the classroom. “These things may not apply to their lives right at this moment, but in the future, they will be major consumers of energy,” Yonkelowitz says. “Students like to be able to impact decisions, and their ability to learn, to make smart decisions about their personal energy use, and to share that information with their families is very important.”
For now, teachers and students are taking advantage of the opportunity to educate the community. “My students put together energy talk shows, plays, and public services announcements where students perform what they’ve learned about energy sources and conservation of energy,” Fonner says. “The parents and local energy personnel who watch them are always amazed at how much 10-year-olds know about energy compared to most adults.”
This program allows parents to learn along with their children and look for ways to save energy, and therefore money, at home. “I have my students go through their homes with their parents to assess their energy usage,” Fonner says. “I let students sign out kilowatt meters to test items for the amount of electricity used. We compile the results and then share them with parents at a classroom presentation.”
Teachers who are interested in incorporating the NEED program into their classrooms have access to the curriculum. “We get two or three requests each year from counties who want us to come in and train them,” says Yonkelowitz. “We’d like to do more and get more teachers involved.”
In August, NEED upgraded its website and all of its 120 Teacher and Student Guides are available in .pdf online – by subject, grade, and title. All are aligned to the West Virginia science standards as well. To learn more, go to www.need.org. Want to host a workshop in your community? Contact NEED at 1-800-875-5029 or firstname.lastname@example.org.