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New UW Energy Education Initiative to Aid Wyoming K-12 Students

September 9, 2016
children in a room with the images of multi-colored spheres in it
Elementary school students recently experienced the Shell 3-D Visualization Center in the UW Energy Innovation Center as a teaching tool. UW is creating a new Wyoming Energy Education Initiative that will develop comprehensive, embedded learning to ensure that students in Wyoming’s K-12 schools understand energy’s history and economic impact. (UW Photo)

Creating comprehensive, embedded learning that ensures students in Wyoming’s K-12 schools understand energy’s history and economic impact is the ultimate goal for a new collaboration between the University of Wyoming College of Education and the UW School of Energy Resources.

The new Wyoming Energy Education Initiative (WEEI) is not UW’s first attempt to provide research-based learning experiences in the state’s schools. However, it is the first designed to draw from all of UW’s energy-related resources -- and partners across the state -- to develop an embedded curriculum that can be widely adopted and supported over time.

The initial study period will focus on three goals: Provide a pathway to enhance teaching of Wyoming’s energy-rich history; explore the innovations behind energy use and resource development; and encourage critical understanding across curricular areas that supports informed decisions related to Wyoming’s energy, environment and economic future.

The School of Energy Resources (SER) will provide funding for the three-year project -- $225,000 per year -- according to SER Executive Director Mark Northam.

Seeds for WEEI were planted when Northam and College of Education Dean Ray Reutzel initiated discussion regarding potential collaboration to enhance energy education in the state’s schools. A critically important goal, Northam says, would be “to provide information to students who go through our school systems to prepare them to think critically about the very difficult decisions that will have to be made about energy in their lifetimes.”

“I was looking for ways that the College of Education, in cooperation with other colleges and schools, could break down walls of discipline isolation. I wanted to help foster interdisciplinary research work involving content specialists in a variety of disciplines and College of Education faculty who specialize in applying the learning sciences to disciplinary learning in order to educate better teachers for the state’s schools,” Reutzel says. “I felt that with the science, engineering and education initiatives, we needed to do a better job of integrating these efforts university-wide. When Mark and I first visited, I could tell I had a kindred spirit in Mark.”

Northam and Reutzel asked College of Education faculty member Kate Muir Welsh and then-SER staff member Sarah Ramsey-Walters to develop a proposal to launch the process. Welsh and Ramsey-Walters, now a Casper teacher, initiated discussions with colleagues from across UW’s campus to identify what such an endeavor might look like and require to implement successfully.

Ramsey-Walters also researched previous energy-related programs and found ample evidence of UW’s attempts to impact teaching in the state, with a common problem: Virtually none survived to experience long-term adoption.

“We have these stop-and-go projects over time,” UW elementary education faculty member Alan Buss says. Partly because of the nature of grant funding supporting those projects, they mostly exist in silos and see variable use depending on K-12 teacher awareness and availability of resources, he adds.

Reutzel tabbed Buss and fellow education faculty member Mark Helmsing to serve as WEEI content leaders. Buss is an elementary STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teacher educator; Helmsing is a secondary social studies education specialist, both in the College of Education.

One of the first steps for WEEI leaders will be to convene “review camps,” inviting K-12 faculty and others to evaluate previous programs and materials.

“We want to have a group of teachers and a group of UW faculty and other education stakeholders to come in and review those projects so that we can build off of them as a foundation,” Welsh says of the camp’s goals.

While developing ways to embed the history and context of energy in Wyoming into curricula is important to all parties, the vision is far broader, organizers say.

“Our goal is not just to tell the story about where energy comes from and how it is liberated,” Northam says. “We hope to prepare and motivate a subset of Wyoming students to go to the university and help to create the solutions that will allow us to continue to have abundant, clean energy. This will require a much broader curricular involvement.”

Helmsing also says equipping students to examine evidence and make the best possible decisions -- using historical, spatial, civic and economic thinking skills -- is an essential outcome.

“It’s a way of thinking about the student’s relationship to his or her environment, their place,” he says. “Energy as an object of inquiry can be a topic or a touchstone or an anchor to do all kinds of deeper thinking.”

WEEI leaders are confident that embedding energy education can be done within existing K-12 standards.

“It’s not a stretch to be able to create activities that really ask students to look at evidence and ask questions about that based on the evidence,” Buss says of energy-related topics and problems. “The units and the instruction and the standards are already there.”

“It’s simply a matter of using energy as an example to do this kind of teaching,” Helmsing adds about the need to fit energy curriculum to existing K-12 standards.

Buss acknowledges an equally critical step to ensuring the success of anything emerging from WEEI.

“We need to make this institutionalized in the state, so that the state expects, not from the top down, but from the ground up -- parents, businesses, local school boards -- each student to understand the critical role energy has in Wyoming,” he adds.

As the research plan begins to take shape, a series of first steps has been identified:

-- Creating a WEEI leadership council, made up of practicing K-12 and UW educators, to advise the team on direction.

-- Growing an extended network of partners, from UW, the community colleges, the Wyoming Department of Education, state energy associations and others.

-- Bringing elementary education faculty member Karen Cloud on board to support program operations.

-- Launching a one-day energy education workshop for elementary education majors.

-- Launching a parallel experience for social studies education majors.

-- Hiring two graduate assistants, one in STEM education and one in social studies education, to support the program.

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