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March 26, 2021

Smart Grids For Schools: Building A Real-World Understanding of Energy


One of the major themes throughout the Environmental Science course that I teach to our 7th graders is energy. We flow through the year like an electron, looking at how energy flows in ecosystems, the costs and benefits of obtaining energy from different protein sources, how energy is created from fossil fuels, the impact that energy generation has had on our atmosphere and climate, and finally, how alternative energies can be utilized to lessen the human footprint.

We do this by utilizing Illinois State University’s Smart Grids for Schools program.

The Grid Tables and corresponding curriculum fit in nicely as a bridge from learning about energy generation and fossil fuels, to our upcoming units on climate change and alternative energies.

Most importantly, these aren’t your typical model tables. The interactive displays have computers that allow students to see electricity from the perspective of the power company and the homeowner. This feature made it possible for my students to make inferences about the new Smart Grid system and the opportunities it provides.

As one student remarked, “I liked how it told us more about how power plants and energy works. I like how we got to figure it out for ourselves.”

The grid tables integrate many key features of NGSS 3-dimensional learning. The NGSS is comprised of three strands: Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs), Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) and Cross Cutting Concepts (CCCs). Content we had been learning in class was easily expanded on by these tables, but more importantly, SEPs and CCCs were abundant!

Illinois has been upgrading its electrical grid with new technology, thus the name “Smart Grid.” The new technologies give power companies the ability to receive immediate data on when and where lines go down or whose power is out. This is superior to older methods of customers calling in when the power goes out and linemen driving through the area to determine at which point the system broke down.

On the customer’s end, power is likely to be restored more quickly. But there are current and future benefits that come from the smart meters that have been installed. Looking at your electric bill, you can see a breakdown of power usage per hour, which allows for the ability to know exactly how to cut down on your electricity use.

For example, my own energy bill shows that I often use the most energy on Sundays, motivating me to find ways to use less power on those days. As people begin to replace their appliances with smart appliances, those appliances will be able to communicate with your smart meter. Appliances that are not always in use will be able to turn on when the price of electricity is lower, such as in the middle of the night. This new technology will lessen the demand on the electrical grid during peak times, as well as reduce the cost of electricity for the consumer.

Two students using the Smart Grids For Schools program.The students were able to learn a lot of this, not by reading or listening to someone explain the new grid, but by designing their own experiments with the grid tables. One of my 7th graders said afterward, “It was entertaining because it was very interactive and something we could learn problem solving from, and it connects to our own lives as well.”

Not only were my students creating models of different scenarios that could occur, such as outages in different parts of the grid, but they were able to see the cause-effect relationships. They felt the frustration — without the smart grid — of having to hunt to find which wires were disconnected. When they were able to switch over to monitor the smart grid by computer, they saw how easy it was to use the technology to determine the outages.

To me, opportunities like this are incredibly important and too infrequent. The type of quality, hands-on, and thoughtfully programmed experiences that these grid tables provide, do more than teach students about a specific concept. It integrates many of the science and engineering practices and cross-cutting concepts of the NGSS.

I hope programs such as this are an integral part of the future of NGSS. Programs like Smart Grids for Schools provide high-quality resources that facilitate experimentation by students. They also provide strong curricular resources for teachers that lead students towards exploration and application of prior knowledge to make new connections.

This work was made possible through support by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.


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