As millions of students wrap up the school year this month, thousands of teachers, with electric cooperatives’ help, are preparing to head back to classrooms.

Spurred by a knowledge gap among many educators and students about power generation and delivery, co-ops are building professional development programs, often in conjunction with local colleges and universities, that offer teachers learning opportunities as well as lessons and materials to use in their classrooms.

“The greatest challenge for any industry or subject is a lack of knowledge and understanding,” says Kay LaCoe, director of membership and marketing for the Lignite Energy Council (LEC), a Bismarck, North Dakota-based trade group that has run a teacher education program for 33 years.

Basin Electric Power Cooperative, a G&T also based in Bismarck, has supported the LEC program since the beginning. It includes visits to Basin’s Great Plains Synfuels Plant near Beulah, North Dakota, and the North America Coal Corporation’s Freedom Mine, the largest lignite mining operation in the United States.

Basin engineers and communications staff serve as instructors for the program, which touches on topics like modern mining techniques, fuel and feedstocks, and byproduct use.

“We want to show teachers how we, as an industry, responsibly use natural resources like coal and convert them to the reliable electricity they and their students depend on every day,” says Chad Reisenauer, Basin Electric director of community and member relations. “Our hope in supporting this program is that, by painting the bigger energy picture for our front-line educators, we can plant seeds of understanding.”

Andrea Charlebois, a physical education teacher who attended the course in 2017 to help meet her continuing education requirements, said the program opened her eyes to the complexities of producing power.

“The lectures that lead up to the mine tours really helped me understand the importance of using lignite in North Dakota, both for the economy and environment,” she says. “The mine tours and the hands-on experience were amazing.”

LEC’s LaCoe says teachers who have been through the program work in more than 600 schools, and, by extension, upwards of 60,000 students receive exposure to the curriculum each year.

“Teachers get to talk to miners, power plant operators, and others who live and work near these plants, so they get unfiltered views of the technology,” LaCoe says. “That has a real impact on how our participating teachers view the industry.”

7 Million Students

All told, cooperative-supported education programs nationwide have the potential to reach some 7 million students. To maximize teacher participation, many co-ops provide low- or no-cost training.

In Missouri, Energy in Today’s Classroom is an all-expense-paid continuing education program begun in 2012 with support from Jefferson City-based Central Electric Power Cooperative and the University of Missouri. The program includes training on energy basics, power generation and transmission, energy efficiency, energy sources, and the economics of energy production.

“Teachers were often confused about how electricity is generated, transmitted, and distributed,” says Mark Newbold, the G&T’s director of administrative services. “Our objective is to provide data that is factual for the teachers. We have had 167 teachers take advantage of the opportunity to attend the course since it was developed.”

There are also site visits to generation facilities, and teachers receive tools to help the students better understand energy.

“The teachers travel to the power plant at the University of Missouri-Columbia,” says Keith Mueller, a senior education specialist at Central. “They get to see coal-based, biomass, solar, natural gas, and wind generation. It is truly a hands-on opportunity for them.”

The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina and the statewide association’s member co-ops support EnlightenSC, a program promoting science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning for students.

“Co-ops have a lengthy history of local educational programs, of connecting and partnering with their local schools and districts,” says Lindsey Smith, vice president of education for the Cayce-based Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina.

Since 2013, more than 100 South Carolina teachers have completed the program’s four-week summer graduate-credit course, sponsored and underwritten by electric co-ops.

“Through EnlightenSC, they’re introducing a new generation of young people to electric cooperatives,” Smith says. “That’s making it easier for teachers to stage STEM activities in the classroom and present more-balanced lessons about energy.”

In Ohio, middle school teachers participate in continuing education programs affiliated with Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives. The Columbus-based statewide/G&T has coordinated the Be E3 Smart program since 2011 for its 24 member distribution co-ops, in partnership with the nonprofit Ohio Energy Project.

“E3 stands for energy, efficiency, and education,” says Janet Rehberg, director of cooperative development for Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives. “The coursework can be introduced over several days or rolled out in portions to supplement offerings from their middle school science lesson plans.”

Throughout each school year, more than 5,000 middle school students are exposed to lesson plans structured around the program. The students also receive energy efficiency materials they are encouraged to share with their families.

Tucker, Georgia-based Green Power Electric Membership Corp. (EMC), a renewable energy cooperative, provides a solar curriculum and training for teachers at middle and high schools in the state.

“We partnered with the University of West Georgia to develop the materials,” says Michelle Z. Simmons, manager of Green Power EMC’s SunPower for Schools program. “It uses real-time data from solar panels installed at 44 schools and from several cooperative solar farms at our EMC.”

Since 2014, more than 550 science and math teachers have taken part in the curriculum training. The summer workshops are consistently filled to capacity.

65,000 Classrooms

Working with their G&Ts, distribution co-ops in several states have embraced the National Energy Education Development (NEED) Project, an energy education program launched in 1982 that provides instructional materials used in 65,000 classrooms.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association in Westminster, Colorado, East Kentucky Power Cooperative in Winchester, and PowerSouth Energy Cooperative in Andalusia, Alabama, are among the G&Ts supporting the program.

“Through our partnership with NEED, we soon will have provided factual and relevant information to over 700 teachers in only two years,” says Leigh Grantham, PowerSouth vice president of member services and communications. “Introducing this applicable, real-world energy knowledge into our classrooms reinforces our mission of providing reliable and affordable energy. Our board considers this initiative an investment in the future of PowerSouth, its members, our communities, and the electric industry.”

Tri-State will host its own energy conference for 50 teachers from Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Wyoming at the G&T’s headquarters conference center.

“When we help teachers to truly understand the subject, we help them to teach their students about energy with passion and confidence,” says Michelle Pastor, TriState’s education program advisor who oversees co-op participation in the NEED Project.

The three-day professional training program is designed to fit STEM recommendations outlined by the U.S. Department of Education.

Some classroom facilitators presenting the program have been involved with NEED for decades and keep up with changes in state educational standards, continuing studies requirements for teachers, and energy industry trends.

“When teachers complete the training, they receive a Science of Energy kit that includes lesson plans and materials so they may implement hands-on lessons in the classroom,” Pastor says. “In three days, we work to provide them with a fundamental understanding of all aspects of energy.”

PowerSouth’s Grantham finds that providing Science of Energy kits and continuing study credits to its Empower program attendees is both valuable and rewarding. “What better way to invest directly into our communities than through our teachers?”