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Hands-on learning teaches kids about the power grid

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DECATUR – A hair dryer is a typical oft-used appliance in most homes, and probably most of us never give a second thought to how much energy it uses.

Prabhat Das tested one on Friday at Mount Zion Intermediate School as part of a project his sixth-grade class is doing on energy, thanks to a loan of smart grid models from Illinois State University's Center for Math, Science and Technology.

“This uses 50 percent less power,” Prabhat said of the dryer, which he had just finished checking.

Students learned how electricity is made, starting from a hand-cranked generator and moving to the way Ameren gets power to their homes. They learned about renewable energy, too.

Half the class worked on running miniature power lines from a power plant through a transformer station and strung from tiny power poles to tiny homes, while the other half worked on tasks on dollhouse-size homes.

“This is a smart grid lab,” said Stephanie Marshall, the teacher. “We've been learning about renewable and nonrenewable resources. I went to a workshop, and they actually have a grant. They sent these smart home and grids, and we get to keep it for a week at no charge.”

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The energy sources include water, solar and coal.

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“We're having to basically make electricity, from how to get it to one house to how to get it to an entire village,” Marshall said.

One lesson she wants the kids to retain is how to save power at home, which is part of what Prabhat's group was doing in testing the power drain of various appliances. They also experimented to find out which kinds of power sources worked best with those appliances.

Having a hands-on activity like this will help the students remember how the power grid works, said Morgan Perkins.

In the model village, the tiny houses had lights on the backs that lit up when the power was reaching that house, and matching lights on a control box so that their model power company could see that somebody's power wa out, and work to fix it, just like in real life.

At one point, they had to repair a wire and run a new one all the way from the transformer station to the little house.

“This is better than you read it, you look at a picture and forget it all by the next day,” said Andie Valdez.

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