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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo APRIL 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 8
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ON CAMPUS: A Winning Idea
By Lynne Shallcross

Clarkson University engineering students help middle schoolers grasp their role in energy conservation.

One energy expert recommends using a clothesline instead of a dryer to save energy and money. Another turns off the lights when he leaves a room—and reminds family members to do the same. Research appliances before you buy, says one other expert, and yet another recommends rollerblading and walking as much as possible because “sooner or later we are going to run out of gas for cars.”

These experts weren’t trained at an engineering school (yet), and they can’t be found on the front lines of alternative energy research—they’re eighth graders who’ve learned a thing or two from a new board game. Energy Choices, a game created by engineering students at Clarkson University in upstate New York, is helping these students learn about the country’s energy situation and the impact of their own personal decisions.

As part of an NSF-funded K-12 Project-Based Learning Partnership Program, the Clarkson students volunteer in local schools, helping to teach math, science and engineering. While energy is part of the eighth-grade curriculum, many students don’t know the basics of efficiency and conservation, says Susan Powers, associate dean for research and graduate studies at Clarkson’s Coulter School of Engineering.

Teachers suggested creating a board game to make the concept more tangible. After a summer of research, which included playing board games and finding statistics on the cost of energy, the Clarkson students developed Energy Choices.

Middle school students play Energy Choices in upstate New York.

To start the game, each player gets $40,000 and picks a house and transportation card from an upside-down stack. As the players roll the dice and move around the board, they pass through gas stations and energy bill gates where they pay based on the house or car on their cards—the player with the most money at the end wins. A player with a new compact hybrid would fare better at the gas station than one with a gas-guzzling SUV. A player with a supplemental solar panel system would shell out less than a player with a home run solely off the national electric grid.

Students can also land on choice and situation squares. A situation card might bring a heat wave, forcing those with air-conditioned homes to pay $200 and those with fans to pay $50. A choice card might give students the opportunity to buy either a new refrigerator or their grandmother’s old one, which costs less but uses more energy. “The kids get some idea that the capital cost is not the answer,” Powers says.

Situation cards

Another choice card offers players $200 and a week in Disney World for winning the best holiday lights display. But choosing to win also means an extra $1,000 on the next energy bill.

Eighth graders in six local schools played Energy Choices last fall, and two more have joined this spring. Powers says she’d like to eventually see the game expand to eighth-grade science and math classrooms across the country.

The giggles over winning the light display and the sighs and moans at a gas station show that the students are having a good time—and they’re learning, too, Powers says. “If they hear something about a wind turbine or hybrid car, they’ll have some understanding of why they are important.”

Yet Powers isn’t forgetting the more immediate future. “Hopefully they’ll do better on their eighth-grade science exams,” she says, with a chuckle—and maybe have a little fun, too.

Lynne Shallcross is associate editor for Prism.


 

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TEACHING TOOLBOX
ALL THINGS GREAT AND SMALL - Universities are starting to establish programs to teach nanotechnology to children. But there’s controversy over how to present the information. - By Margaret Loftus
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ON CAMPUS: A Winning Idea - By Lynne Shallcross
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LAST WORD: Opening More Books - By Jill Powell
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