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The Vermont Energy Education Program is helping teachers keep students engaged with clean energy curriculum.

A Vermont organization that reaches hundreds of students per year through in-school clean energy workshops is moving its curriculum online.

The Vermont Energy Education Program has rolled out an online portal for students and teachers to access clean energy educational resources during the coronavirus pandemic. While it doesn’t cover everything, organizers are hopeful the at-home lessons will keep kids engaged on the subject and maybe even increase engagement with parents.

Mike Gray teaches eighth grade science at Randolph Union Middle/High School in central Vermont. He and his fellow core subject teachers before the pandemic had been planning a class-wide project in which groups of students would complete activities focused on different energy-related topics — renewable electricity, heating and cooling, energy production and waste, and transportation.

Taking the lead on heating and cooling, Gray was going to use infrared cameras provided by the Vermont Energy Education Program. Students would take the cameras and offer a sort of energy audit for businesses and homes in the area, detecting where heat loss is occurring on the outdoor parts of buildings.

The school kicked off the project in March with an energy fair featuring speakers from solar, wind, weatherization and other clean energy-focused sectors. The goal was to get students thinking about what aspect of the class project they might want to work on. But by the next week the school was closed.

“This kind of shut that down,” Gray said. 

Gray quickly pivoted. The pandemic has led to a sharp decline in emissions as people stay home and events are canceled. He recently had his students look at data and asked them to think about how the world might continue to keep emissions down once countries emerge from the immediate lockdown.

He’s also having students set smart energy goals for themselves — a plan to conserve their own energy use at home. He and his colleagues worked with the energy education program prior to the pandemic to develop a template for students. Gray admitted it would have been ideal if they’d had the experience of doing the work in class to help guide them.

“We’re just trying to keep them aware of the energy now,” he said. His goal isn’t to advance students’ knowledge as much as to keep them engaged.

The Vermont Energy Education Program runs about 200 in-school workshops each year in Vermont, said Cara Robechek, the organization’s executive director. New funding in recent years has allowed it to create a similar program in New Hampshire.

The vast majority of its programming happens in person, Robechek said. When schools closed, her team quickly took what they could online. The organization’s website has resources, specific to grade level, that teachers and parents can use at home to help students learn about efficiency, renewable energy and related concepts. Those resources can be provided to students online, or printed and mailed for students who don’t have internet access.

It’s difficult to gauge teacher interest, Robechek said. “We went ahead and rushed to put things out there,” knowing educators were scrambling to adapt and it wouldn’t be easy to figure out how much the online activities were being used, she said.

The group’s goal is to engage students in hands-on learning, and the organization often provides equipment, like the infrared scanners Gray was planning to use, for in-class sessions. Students can do some activities at home — for example, counting their light bulbs and learning about the savings they might get with LEDs. And this might make the concepts more visible to parents, too.

For Gray, the education itself is secondary to maintaining a connection with his students. Having time off from school may have sounded tempting at first to young people, but “I’ve had a lot more kids than I ever have wishing they could go back to school,” he said. With a large population of students who rely on free and reduced lunch, he’s also worried about students being provided for.

In addition to being available online for live chat several times a week, Gray and his colleagues make videos that students use for home learning. Many students’ schedules have shifted and they have more responsibilities at home, he said, so using prerecorded rather than live video helps accommodate them. It also means he can put videos on flash drives to send to students who don’t have internet access.

This was the first year the school had a project planned where students were going to go out and do something in the community. It’s interesting to see what lessons might be learned about energy use from the current situation, Gray said, although it’s “kind of a bummer” to have to push back the project he had planned.

He also noted that he’s grateful to organizations like the Vermont Energy Education Program and others that have made new resources available for free, whether learning content or technology to facilitate remote teaching. And while the situation is far from ideal, he said it does provide a useful teaching challenge: Since students aren’t able to ask questions in real time, he has to make sure his instructions are completely clear. “It’s only going to help in the classroom.”

David Thill

David is a New York-based journalist who has written on health, science and the environment for various outlets, including World Wildlife Fund and the Chicago newspaper Windy City Times. He has reported on topics including the city’s opioid epidemic, bird research at the Field Museum, and LGBT youth in foster care. He covers northern New England for the Energy News Network.