Excited kids cluster in groups of two or three around desks and worktables, touching wires from tiny sockets to tiny batteries to make tiny lights flicker on. The brightest light, though, is the one that flashes on the faces of the children themselves: the glow of new knowledge and an understanding of what powers so much of their young lives.
“They’re learning about electricity on an elementary level,” says Gina Warren, who leads these aptly named Experiments with Electricity. “You can tell students what an open circuit is, but go into the classroom and have them build an actual simple series circuit, then they understand what it is and how it works.”
Warren is the communications and community relations coordinator for
Duck River Electric Membership Corporation (DREMC), headquartered in Shelbyville, Tennessee. She’s been handling utility community outreach efforts like this for a couple of decades, but she’s only in her second year at DREMC. Experiments with Electricity, which she launched late in the 2017-18 school year, has already become a mainstay of her portfolio.
To support the program, DREMC built a sort of mobile lab, complete with all the necessary materials: batteries, wires, sockets, insulators. A three-member crew—two linemen and the safety director—handles the co-op’s attention-getting high-voltage safety trailer demonstrations at schools and other venues, while Warren handles the Experiments with Electricity classes.
“It’s just me right now,” Warren says with a laugh. “My team of one.”
She doesn’t mind that one bit. Her school program, which takes her into daytime science classes as well as after-school activities like STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) clubs, includes instruction about safety around power lines and poles as well as piquing kids’ interest in utility careers.
Her sessions cover a lot of ground.
“It teaches the basics of how electricity works: how electricity is produced by TVA, brought into our co-op, and delivered across our service area,” Warren says, referencing the Tennessee Valley Authority, the federal power marketing agency that supplies the co-op with electricity.
But she doesn’t shy away from complex topics.
“Students learn about insulators, conductors, voltage, the difference between series and parallel circuits,” she says. “If time permits, they even learn how a light switch works.”
A booklet provided by DREMC boils electricity down to the atomic level, so students learn that electricity comes from moving electrons.
“We don’t elaborate on resistance, but we do talk about what happens when the lights go out, so then they understand that outages are caused by various types of resistance like fallen trees, wildlife, and more,” Warren says.
The battery-driven experiment with the 6-volt lightbulbs offers an opportunity to drive another point home.
“We want students to understand there’s a huge difference between the circuit wires on their desks and what’s behind the walls of their classroom or the power line outside,” Warren says. “That’s why we don’t climb trees near power lines. We always, always try to bring the presentations back to electrical safety.”
Going into classrooms has taught Warren some things, as well, like just how eager the young students and their teachers are for hands-on lessons about an everyday miracle like electric power.
“It seems like the schools are eager for this kind of thing,” Warren says. “We originally thought the program was best for fourth- and fifth-graders, but we received requests from seventh-grade teachers too this past year.”
Educators in DREMC’s service territory say Experiments with Electricity provides a vital addition to the science curriculum.
“DREMC has assisted in bringing STEM education to life here in the Franklin County School District,” says Maranda Wilkinson, the district’s STEM curriculum specialist.
Conversely, Warren says, Experiments with Electricity has become a valuable part of DREMC’s community relations efforts.
“Our schools have been so welcoming,” she says. “DREMC employees are proud to play a part in educating our youth, and we are especially glad that we play a role in furthering STEM education in our service area.”
Know someone RE Magazine could profile for our “Front Lines” column? We're looking for co-op operations and member services staffers, from meter readers to lineworkers to engineers, who make things work at electric co-ops nationwide. Contact us at email@example.com, or you can reach writer John Vanvig directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-624-4595.