Illinois Wind for Schools Program: Wind Powering America Lessons Learned

July 23, 2012

The U.S. Energy Department's Wind for Schools project works to promote wind industry workforce development by focusing on K-12 and university educators and students to counter the trend of reduced numbers of U.S. students entering science and engineering fields. The Wind for Schools project also raises awareness in rural America about the benefits of wind energy through implementing and supporting wind energy curricula and by augmenting these curricula with on-site wind energy projects. The Energy Department launched the project by providing initial funding for 11 states, with the understanding that the Wind Application Centers would find alternative funding sources after a specified time period. The project also developed an affiliate program to allow states or schools that do not receive direct funding to become involved, the model that Illinois enacted.

Illinois was not funded by the Energy Department; the state launched its own Wind for Schools program encompassing "classroom curriculum and instruction, design and experimentation (lab) activities, real-world data collection using professional-quality weather instrumentation located on the school premises, data manipulation, energy forecasting, and scientific analysis." The three pilot schools are Ridgeview Community Unit School District (CUSD) #19, Colfax, McLean County; Elmwood CUSD #322, Elmwood, Peoria County; and CUSD #3, Fulton County, Cuba. A unique aspect of the Illinois program is that it is co-administrated by two universities, Illinois State University in Normal and Western Illinois University in Macomb. Wind Powering America interviewed Matt Aldeman at the Center for Renewable Energy at Illinois State University and Jolene Willis at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University to learn more about these school wind projects.

According to our Wind for Schools teams, funding is the most critical issue they face. How did you fund your program, and what have you learned about funding?

The Illinois Wind for Schools program was funded solely through the Illinois Energy Office of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. As the program matures, we are pursuing additional funding sources. We feel optimistic about the chances of financial support from wind developers within the state (the Production Tax Credit extension would help greatly) and related wind supply chain and professional consulting companies. We believe that we have a good chance of finding funding for schools through corporate partnerships and sponsorships. We have pursued a few other funding sources from various agencies and organizations, but to no avail.

Because funding situations and organizations vary from state to state, I don't think there is any magic formula for funding. I believe it all depends on what is available at a local and state level.

What lessons have you learned so far from working with your pilot schools?

It may sound obvious, but one thing that has become very apparent is that teachers are busy, and integrating new material into the classroom is difficult! We believe the best way of overcoming this obstacle is by selecting highly motivated teachers who already have a sincere interest in energy curriculum and renewable energy. In the recent round of applications, we received applications from 26 schools and selected six. In their applications, teachers and administrators from these six schools showed that they are very motivated to incorporate wind energy into their curriculum and provide outreach to their community. Many have already attended workshops related to energy and renewable energy instruction, which further demonstrates their commitment.

We arranged for guest speakers from industry to present at each school, and that aspect of the program received positive reviews this past year. We will likely try to arrange for at least one guest speaker to speak at each school every year.

The 2012-2013 school year marks the end of the pilot portion of the Illinois Wind for Schools program. What have you learned so far about school selection?

We developed connections with the Illinois State Board of Education, the Illinois Science Teachers' Association, and various state school administrator associations, and we have utilized their listservs to promote our application period to a wide audience of teachers and administrators around the state. We also utilized our combined universities' media distribution systems with press releases and presented at several statewide wind and education events, including teacher workshops. I think that getting the word out to such a large number of teachers helped ensure that we received a large number of high-quality applications.

We also recently completed our first statewide teacher workshop, with 34 teachers from across the state attending the day-long training. Teachers who attended received Continuing Professional Development Units from Illinois State University, where the workshop was held, and were able to interact with the Illinois Wind for Schools team members throughout the day.

Please describe the teacher workshops. Why do you host a workshop at each individual school as opposed to one large workshop? What lessons have you learned?

We think it's important to have a successful workshop at each one of the schools to set the stage and build excitement for the coming year. We did consider having one unified workshop where all of the teachers come together, and that option is still on the table for future years. For the time being, we proceeded with the workshops at individual schools because we wanted to give the participants individualized attention, we wanted them to feel free to ask questions, we wanted to have the ability to adjust the workshop to specific teacher questions or concerns, and possibly most important, we knew that the logistics would be extremely challenging, to find a date on which all participants would be willing and able to travel to a centralized workshop location. It has actually been quite challenging just to schedule the individual workshops at each school.

The typical agenda for a workshop includes sessions on topics such as an overview on energy and wind energy, how a wind turbine works, energy and wind energy lesson plans, and how to implement energy and wind energy curricula. We may alter this agenda in the future to include hands-on activities with the KidWind Project turbines. We found that if we want teachers to include lessons with KidWind turbines in their classroom (and we do), then it is helpful to give them hands-on experience during the workshop.