The Future of Renewables: NREL Reaches Out to Schools Across U.S.

The Federal Government takes its share of criticisms when it comes to getting serious about renewable energy. While states and municipalities across the country announce some new initiative around renewables on almost a daily basis, our leaders in Washington DC seem to vie with each other over who can pay the most lip service to clean energy.

However, in a group of futuristic-looking buildings a few miles west of Denver, Colorado, an institution of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funded (sometimes erratically) by this same government spends its own energies researching and developing technologies for renewable energy. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is tasked with bringing renewable energy technologies from the lab to the marketplace, making it an innately forward-looking institution.

But it’s perhaps in the laboratory’s educational outreach programs that NREL makes its greatest investment in the future of renewable energy. Organizing or supporting scientific activities from kindergarten to college level and beyond, NREL is helping the next generation to regard renewable energy as an imperative in their lives. In fact, the Lab’s Office of Education Programs sees renewables as a way of attracting K-12 students to broader fields of science, mathematics and technology.

At the lower end of the age range, the effort is local. NREL sponsors the Coalition for Learning Opportunities and United Tutors Program (CLOUT), an after school reading and hands-on science program for Denver area fourth-graders. The intent of CLOUT is to combine topical reading with related hands-on activities to improve reading comprehension levels as well as interest in the subject matter.

“Elementary and Middle School ages seem to be the most engaged with science topics,” says Dr. Cynthia Howell, Manager of NREL’s education programs. So it’s to be expected that the next big step comes at the middle school level, where students can take part in the National Middle School Science Bowl (NMSSB).

This fun competition, combining a fast-paced academic quiz with a race between model fuel cell cars designed and built by students, is co-sponsored by the Department of Energy and General Motors. Regional rounds take place across the country, leading up to a national final in Denver in June. This year, Honey Creek Middle School of Terre Haute, Indiana, achieved a hat-trick by winning the academic portion of the competition a third consecutive time.

The High School counterpart of the NMSSB has seen more than 150,000 high school students compete in regional and national rounds since its inception sixteen years ago. The national round is held each spring in Washington, D.C., and top prizes have included overseas trips as well as one week research visits to DOE National Laboratory sites. The High School Bowl tests students’ knowledge of Earth science, math, general science, astronomy, chemistry, physics, biology and computer science.

At the undergraduate and graduate levels, Dr. Howell’s office sponsors mentored research internships and fellowships. And for community college and high school teachers, the DOE runs professional development programs to improve their science knowledge, instructional strategies and leadership abilities.

“At all levels, from fourth-graders to graduate students and teachers,” says Dr. Howell, “the aim is to produce not just scientists but intelligent consumers and workforce members.”

NREL even has a hand in taking instruction out of the lab or classroom and onto the road. If you see a brightly colored, propane-powered van and trailer sporting what appears to be an algebraic equation at your local school soon, it’s most likely to be RnE2EW—Renewable Energy and Efficiency Education on Wheels.

Developed through a partnership involving the DOE, NREL, the Midwest Research Institute (MRI) and BP America, RnE2EW is an educational outreach vehicle designed to engage students, teachers, and the community in renewable energy and efficiency sciences as well as to showcase DOE/NREL research and technology.

The customized propane-fueled RnE2EW van is a teacher resource center, outfitted with electronics, displays and workstations. It travels the country offering educational outreach events, hands-on activities, and professional development seminars at schools, conventions, competitions, trade shows, fairs, and other exhibitions for students, teachers, and consumers in a fun, engaging way.

And if you happen to be on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in October, you may see an entire village in place for a week. You’ll be looking at the culmination of the Solar Decathlon, a college-level activity co-sponsored by NREL in which teams of students from around the world compete to create the most energy-efficient home possible. For Dr. Howell’s Office of Education Programs, it’s a natural outgrowth of activities that they helped start at fourth grade, and that bring renewable energy concepts to all Americans from elementary school to college, from the lab and classroom to the most public places in the nation.

Chris Stimpson is the Executive Campaigner and Activist for the Solar Nation advocacy group solar-nation.org. In addition he serves on the Board of Directors of Clean Power Now.  

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