Think! energy and take action!

Fans of the Purdue Boilermakers will tell you late September in West Lafayette, IN, is football season. Purdue Pete, uniformed in the nostalgic old gold and black, rallies the fans at Ross-Ade Stadium, and the crowd gets energized for another glorious Big Ten Saturday home game.

These days, Boilermaker fans aren’t the only ones in West Lafayette getting a late-September energy boost. Less than a mile away at Happy Hollow Elementary, 161 5th graders and their teachers are getting energized to “Think! Energy” and “Take Action!” about using our precious energy resources more wisely and about taking better care of the world in which we live.

“Think! Energy” is an energy efficiency education program of the National Energy Foundation (NEF), a national 501 (c) (3) nonprofit educational organization headquartered in Salt Lake City, UT. In West Lafayette, the program is sponsored by Vectren, the area’s provider of natural gas. In Indianapolis, Citizens Gas and Indianapolis Power and Light, the natural gas and electric utilities, respectively, servicing Indianapolis and greater Marion County, collaboratively support the program. Up north in Elkhart, Gary, and other rust belt communities, Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO) provides the program. Several hundred miles to the east, schools throughout central and eastern Pennsylvania receive the program compliments of PPL Electric Utilities.

It’s Monday morning, September 29, at Happy Hollow. Marilyn Clark and Joannie Reeder, one of NEF’s elite teams of “Think! Energy” presenters, arrive at the school around 8:30 a.m., check in with school administration, and set up in the gymnasium. 161 students is an unusually large number of students for one presentation (the average is 75), but NEF presenters are prepared for any contingency, including lots of potentially unruly students.

The students enter with their teachers. The presentation begins, and the students’ collective attention is secured through the use of an instructional PowerPoint presentation, interspersed with fun, hands-on activities. The energy efficiency theme becomes clear in a hurry. Students become engaged in a discussion of where our energy comes from, why we need it, how we get it, how we use it, and what kinds of impacts occur because we use it. Oh, and what can I do about it.

The lights turn on in these young minds. They distantly hear things in the mass media about climate change, about energy security, about the health hazards of polluted air, water, and land. But most of them haven’t ever really made the connection that if they install a new, more efficient showerhead, or kitchen sink aerator in their home; or replace an incandescent light bulb with a compact fluorescent bulb; or take a shorter shower; or learn to turn off the TV, computer, or lights when they leave the room; or turn down the thermostat, they can make a difference.

This is exciting stuff! But the best is yet to come. As the end of the presentation draws near, stacks of colorful boxes are carried into the gym. The boxes say “Think! Energy” and everyone gets one. The NEF presenter opens a box for all to see. Inside are various energy efficiency devices, from showerheads to shower timers, from digital thermometers to flow rate test bags. If the students were down in Indianapolis, they’d get a couple of compact fluorescent light bulbs, too. Then the students learn that they are supposed to take these devices and gadgets home and actually use them. Too cool.

This isn’t just any old school program where little Johnny takes the box home, and despite the best of intentions, it sits on the shelf. Each student is also given a “Household Report Card” to fill out with mom or dad or another adult. The report card asks if the showerhead or aerator got installed; if the furnace filter alarm, providing an alert that the filter is dirty, has been attached; if an incandescent bulb was replaced by a compact fluorescent light bulb; and what kind of energy is used to heat the home and its water. If the student brings back the completed report card, they get a “Think! Energy” wristband. If the teacher is able to collect at least 80% of their students’ completed report cards, and sends them to NEF, they receive a $100 mini-grant for their classroom. NEF gathers the thousands of report cards, conducts a detailed analysis, and comes up with some impressive amounts of natural gas, electricity, water, and wastewater that are saved through the implementation of the program. And it all happens because of the kids.

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