Energy education program to emphasize learning for all ages

Kids learning engineering
Teaching kids about engineering is just one step in generating more awareness about technology.

The earlier students can begin learning about energy, the better off society will be—that’s the philosophy of a group of Iowa State University engineering faculty working to develop sustainable educational programs in the area of energy and energy systems.

Ted Heindel, interim chair of mechanical engineering, Tom Brumm, professor in-charge of online learning, and Ron Cox, associate dean of extension, received a $500,000 grant from the Iowa Office of Energy Independence that was matched by Iowa State to launch these programs by March 2012.

Providing lessons for kindergarteners up through continuing education students, the faculty plan to cover everything from being more energy conscious at home to understanding complex energy areas like solar and biorenewables.

“We’re hoping to build a firm foundation in energy knowledge that draws people’s attention to energy issues and inspires lifelong learning and conservation,” says Heindel. “An added benefit is that this program will give students additional experience with our engineering college, so this could easily serve as a recruiting tool as well.”

As the programs gain popularity, the goal is that they will eventually become self-sustaining as more individuals are drawn to the college to take part in them.

For the younger audience, the educational programs will include energy demonstrations, energy education modules, energy-related activities, and educational packets. These materials can be sent to teachers for classroom use; groups on campus hosting outreach activities could also use them to engage participants with demonstrations during an event.

For undergraduates, the group plans to develop a minor in energy systems that would have a general energy class for all students to take and then allow specialization in a focused energy area of interest. According to Heindel, a big advantage of having a minor in energy systems with different focus areas is that it’s easy to bring new courses online and retire old courses that may no longer be applicable. “It will allow for greater flexibility, so as new things come up and as other things dissipate we can add and remove elements of the minor to stay at the cutting edge,” he says.

They also intend to create a coursework-only master’s of engineering degree and certificate programs in energy systems for those engineers working in industry. These graduate programs will operate in a similar fashion to the minor. Additionally, continuing education courses will be developed that will be useful for both experienced and new professionals. The college will offer each of these components through online learning.

“Right now we’re working on pulling together an oversight committee that will help direct course development for all the aspects of the educational programs we plan to offer,” Heindel says. “We need to identify courses that fit within certain categories, look for areas that need expanding, and then provide resources to faculty to develop courses and programs in those areas.”

The project is a college-wide collaboration, requiring input from all eight academic departments to ensure success. “We recognize that energy systems is a broad topic, but it allows us to bring together all the areas of expertise we have at the college in one meaningful program and gives us the opportunity to provide our students a firm foundation in energy education,” Heindel says.