It's a Bird, It's a plane… It's Energy Innovations!

The second Smithsonian Science Education Academy for Teachers (SSEAT) of the summer came to a successful close once again in the middle of July. The focus of this academy was Energy's Innovations and Implications. The participants heard from a diverse set of speakers on past, current, and future renewable sources of energy as well as how energy has transformed the world we live in for the past 200 years.

The week began with an introduction to modern energy use starting in the industrial revolution where the modern engine was created, initially ran by water until efficiency was increased because of the introduction of steam heated by combustion. Hal Wallace, Curator of Electrical Collections at the National Museum of American History, also introduced the impact Thomas Edison had in bringing electricity to the masses with the creation of the first electrical grid in Menlo Park. Participants were even able to see one of the first electric elevators on display in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Today this electrical grid spans the entire United States, powering lights and appliances each and every day in almost every U.S. home. With the expansion of the grid came an expansion of power stations to supply enough electricity for the quickly growing demand and thus a spike in energy resource usage.

In 2014 petroleum, natural gas, and coal accounted for 81% of the United States' energy consumption. In order to learn firsthand how these power stations work, participants travelled to Dominion Resources' Possum Point Power Station that powers most of northern Virginia. At the station, they learned about their hybrid power generator and push to reduce toxic emissions as well as vocational job opportunities for their students offered by Dominion Resources. These established power stations, like Possum Point, allow for the United States to quickly move into the digital age and power the growing number of appliances in each household, but they also have strong chemical emissions.1Dominion Resources in recent years has made great strides in reducing these emissions and releasing very few emissions. At the dawn of power stations though, the technology was very crude and the build-up of emissions has led to an overall surface temperature rise of ~1.1 on Earth since 1950. 2Additionally, the nine hottest years since 1880 have all occurred since 2000. 3This significant global impact of human energy use has been recognized by leaders around the world who are now working to address and slow down these changes through the use of renewable fuel sources and storage.

U.S. states ranging from coast to coast have constructed large wind farms of turbines with diameters ranging from 40 to 90 meters that can operate any time of the day as long as wind is present. To learn how to better teach wind power to their students, participants created small wind turbines out of plastic and powered by desk fans that were able to illuminate a series of lightbulbs! In order to see renewable energy in action, the participants travelled into Maryland to visit the National Institute of Standards and Technology. There they were able to visit a prototype Net-Zero house and learn about the SmartGrid, which aims to rapidly increase the efficiency of energy production and distribution through digitalization.

These alternative sources of energy are not readily available like non-renewable sources are, so clean energy fuel storage is also being developed. Currently, hydrogen fuel cells are being improved in efficiency to allow the transformation of hydrogen gas into power. With the introduction of fuel cells, renewable resources will be able to power hydrogen production from water, which can then be stored or transferred and converted into electricity when needed. In addition to hydrogen, more innovative solutions are also being funded like microbial fuel cells. Keegan Cooke and Karen Manning, from MudWatt, demonstrated their microbial fuel cell technology--a small and inexpensive fuel cell where the microbes in soil and water power a clock or lightbulb. All of the teachers were excited to learn they would each be returning home with their own MudWatt.

Throughout the week, the Smithsonian Science Education Center was also joined by many scientists from the Department of Energy. These individuals added their invaluable experience and content knowledge to the academy and provided both physical and digital resources for the participants to support their teaching. Their cutting edge work in geothermal, biofuel, and hydrogen fuel cell technologies as well as education outreach led to many in-depth discussions between the participants and scientists broadening the participants' knowledge bases. Equally important, the teachers talked to the scientists from the Department of Energy and learned why they became interested in science in school and learned how to best inspire a passion in their students and encourage them to follow their passion as the scientists did to reach the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

This constant flow of information and new experiences for the participants most understandably left everyone very tired but excited to return to their classroom and share with their students what they had learned. Many of the teachers were excited to take their classroom to the next level this coming year thanks to the academy. One teacher said "I feel like a different teacher and person after this week. I want my kids to be as interested in these topics as I am." All in all, the academy was a success as it did not just leave teachers more knowledgeable and ready to spread this knowledge to students, but it also left them inspired and passionate about energy's innovations and implications.


  1. http://media.wix.com/ugd/cbef12_a11d9c91ff1c42bc8ca23de2ff0f...
  2. http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/2012/13
  3. http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/201413

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