When the 20 member co-ops of PowerSouth Energy Cooperative were gauging interest among local schoolteachers in attending a three-day energy education workshop, they figured maybe 50 to 100 teachers would show up.
They were wrong. In just over 48 hours, hundreds signed up for scholarships from their local electric co-ops. Interest in last summer's inaugural Empower Energy Education Workshop was so high that the Andalusia, Alabama, G&T held two sessions to accommodate more than 400 teachers who ultimately attended.
"Many teachers told us that no company had taken this kind of interest in them as educators. It's our understanding that many don't get supplemental materials and when they do, they pay for [them] themselves," said Baynard Ward, manager of corporate communications at PowerSouth.
For PowerSouth, professional development opportunities for teachers are an investment in future co-op members. In 2016, co-op directors made energy education a high priority because they saw an "imbalance" in the school curriculum, said Gary Smith, PowerSouth president and CEO.
"The workshop fulfilled a strategic objective of the board—to educate K-12 students on where electricity comes from, covering the pros and cons of all generation sources, and including the complexities of providing reliable, affordable and clean energy," said Smith.
The G&T tapped the National Energy Education Development Project to provide program content, instruction and teacher follow-up. NEED is a nonprofit that develops and disseminates energy curricula in some 75,000 K-12 classrooms with help from public and private partners.
Three G&Ts—Tri-State in Westminster, Colorado, East Kentucky Power Cooperative in Winchester, and PowerSouth—worked with their member distribution co-ops to bring trainings to teachers in their communities. Tri-State member co-ops have sponsored 375 teachers over six years and EKPC 95 teachers over five years.
"We hear from teachers that students are engaged and sharing what they've learned with families," said Mary Spruill, executive director of NEED. "What's better than to have students helping other kids and their families understand electric power? It's a really a nice circle of activity."
It's that investment in teachers and young people that will pay off down the road, said Van Smith, a trustee of PowerSouth and director of Central Alabama Electric Cooperative in Prattville.
"Most individuals are concerned with developing our greatest resource—our young people. And we realized that today's teachers play a major role in the shaping of these young minds," said Smith.
Lisa Nall, a science teacher at C.W. Ruckel Middle School in Niceville, Florida, attended the PowerSouth workshop last summer, courtesy of Choctawhatchee Electric Cooperative in DeFuniak Springs, Florida.
For years, she had wanted to spice up the energy unit for her earth science students, but the textbook gave the subject skimpy treatment.
Armed with fresh ideas, a grade-specific, state-approved curriculum and a "Science of Energy" kit with lab materials, Nall said she's confident that she'll encourage a new cycle of eager energy learners. "I want them to be excited to learn about energy."