Electricity is as much a part of life as reading, writing and arithmetic, so it makes sense to teach about it in school, something East River Electric Power Cooperative does with “Co-ops in the Classroom.”
East River Education and Outreach Specialist Jennifer Wolff (left) enlists the teacher to demonstrate electrical potential with a Van de Graff generator for the fifth-grade students at Groton Area School. East River member system Northern Electric Cooperative scheduled the presentation. (Photo by East River Electric Power Cooperative)
Through its members, the generation and transmission co-op offers the program free to school districts in its service territory in eastern South Dakota and western Minnesota. The curriculum teaches students at every grade level about electrical safety, generation, energy efficiency and conservation. It also offers an opening to talk about cooperative business and the value of cooperation.
In the past year alone, Education and Outreach Specialist Jennifer Wolff has visited 79 schools and delivered 110 presentations. “A real testament to the program is how many teachers reach out and request to have us come back,” Wolff observed.
Wolff created “Co-ops in Classrooms” five years ago to supplement “The Story Behind the Switch,” a school program its wholesale power supplier, Basin Electric Power Cooperative, provides to its members.The Basin program is tailored mainly to the fifth grade level, but “Co-ops in the Classroom” offers a more flexible curriculum that East River members can customize for any grade level.
A Montrose Elementary student pedals hard to light up a display for Jennifer Wolff during a presentation arranged by Southeastern Electric Cooperative. (Photo by East River Electric Power Cooperative)
In its first incarnation, “Co-ops in the Classroom” had four separate modules: safety, energy efficiency & conservation, generation and economics. Over time, the separate programs merged into one presentation, which Wolff varies depending on the audience and the school’s needs. “With hundreds of presentations under my belt, I usually have a pretty good understanding of what will or won’t work well for a particular audience,” said Wolff. “For example, with middle school students, I tend to present in more of a ‘game show’ type format. High school students do well with activities where they can be broken into smaller groups. Early elementary students require lots of ‘ooh and ah’ moments to hold their attention.”
Wolff has presented the program to all age groups, but it seems to be most popular with the fourth- and fifth-grade crowd. “This is my favorite age group to present to,” she admitted. “They are old enough to really understand the concepts, still easy to impress and eager to participate.”
Member systems take lead
The program was designed to be a relationship builder for its member systems, so Wolff likes to be accompanied by a co-op representative when she gives the presentations. The local representatives might talk a little bit about their job at the co-op and answer questions after the presentation. Linemen are particularly effective, she added, because they can show off safety equipment and tools, and have more “street cred” when talking about the dangers of electricity.
Requests for presentations that focus specifically on safety are common. Last year, FEM Electric Association asked for a safety presentation aimed at high school students after some teenagers were involved in a couple of near-contact incidents while helping on a farm. FEM worked with Wolff to schedule the presentation at high schools throughout the system’s service territory.
Each distribution cooperative works with local schools a little differently to schedule presentations. Wolff makes it easy by blocking off days in her calendar so the co-ops can offer the schools a choice of days. “Basin takes theirs to nine states so they require a longer lead time for scheduling,” Wolff pointed out. “I do have periods that are scheduled quite tightly, but I can usually fit in a last-minute request for a presentation if one arises.”
The member systems also take the lead on promoting the program to their customers with a little help from marketing letters and flyers provided by East River. Coverage in local publications has helped to spread the word about “Co-ops in the Classroom.” In some cases, word of mouth is enough to stir up interest among teachers who are always happy to have a state content-approved science lesson.
For community, for children
As valuable as the energy and science lessons are, each presentation makes a point of emphasizing safety. There is no way to guess what incidents might have been avoided by showing students how electricity moves or explaining the dangers, not just of power lines, but substations, pad-mount transformers and even household electric outlets. “If even one life has been saved by safety education, that’s a benefit you can’t quantify,” Wolff declared.
“Co-ops in Classrooms” is not about achieving measurable goals, after all. “The program is another way for our distribution systems to show their support and commitment to their communities,” said Wolff. “Often, parents of students in the classes are members of the co-ops, and the schools may be members too. And, it is a great opportunity to educate the next generation of potential members and employees about cooperatives.”