Teachers spend two weeks focused on energy

Teachers spend two weeks focused on energy

URBANA— In the past, when students at Urbana Middle School and High School learned about energy, it might be included as a part of a lesson on a broader subject, say ecology or chemistry.

But this summer, several teachers at those schools are learning how to teach students about energy itself.

As a part of one class at Urbana Middle School, a student might make his or her own wind turbine by piercing a cork on a suspended wire and trying out different materials as blades. The students would then use a source of steam, maybe a tea kettle, to power the turbine.

If it's effective, it could be hooked up to a motor, which would make it a generator.

The goal is that the students would learn about how energy transitions from one form to another.

That problem-solving lesson on a wind turbine made in class is just one teachers came up with during a two-week workshop on energy. Friday is the workshop's final day.

Twenty-two teachers, half of whom work at Urbana Middle School and Urbana High School, have spent the last two weeks learning all about energy and how to teach it.

They've learned about different sources of energy and how it's distributed (as it turns out, it doesn't just happen to be there when you turn on a light). They've taken field trips to a wind farm, Exelon's nuclear power plant in Clinton, Ameren's Technical Applications Center in Champaign and Danville Area Community College's Wind Energy Technician Program.

The teachers now have hands-on experience with places power is generated or distributed, and they can tell you stories about the security at Clinton and how power actually reaches your light bulb.

"We tried to give teachers a fundamental understanding of energy concepts," said Matt Aldeman, senior energy analyst at Illinois State University's Center for Renewable Energy.

They're writing lesson plans and will check in with the workshop's organizers quarterly this school year. After another two-week workshop next summer, the goal is that they will have developed and tested lesson plans for middle and high school so other teachers statewide can use them, said Amy Bloom, the assistant director for outreach for Illinois State University's Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology.

They're also meeting, networking with and learning from energy industry professionals, and can use those relationships in the future as they're teaching kids about energy, said Laura Hlinka, who teaches eighth-grade science at Urbana Middle School.

Meeting with professionals has also helped the teachers understand the need for more workers in the energy industry, Aldeman said.

Bloom said the information has been presented in an unbiased way, including pros and cons of different kinds of energy sources but without opinions about which are the best.

The workshop is also teaching teachers about how they can relate lessons on energy to the new state language arts standards, said Tracy Welch, who's a language arts instructional specialist at Urbana Middle School.

The workshop is being paid for with money from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Partnership program, which is funded for by the U.S. Department of Education and Illinois State Board of Education.

So many Urbana teachers are involved because the Urbana school district is collaborating with Illinois State University's Energy Learning Exchange as a part of Race to the Top, which is a federal grant program Urbana is participating in to implement educational reforms.

That program has Urbana infusing science, math, engineering and technology into its curriculum, said Joe Wiemelt, Urbana's director of equity and student learning and bilingual and multicultural programs.

In particular, the school district will be including more units, lessons and experiments on energy and renewable energy for all students as a part of the core curriculum, Wiemelt said.

"We know energy is an emerging field of study," Wiemelt said, and it's exciting to educate students about the college and career opportunities associated with the energy industry.

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