“How Come the Lights Go On?”—Teaching About Energy

By Micky McKinley Gazette Contributing Writer

I stood before a classroom of eager fifth graders as I began teaching a group of classes called Energy Investigations. “How come the lights go on?” I asked them. They responded: “Wires.” “The switch.” Someone came close: “Something to do with a power plant.” As the discussion progressed I was reminded again that most fifth graders don’t know where our energy comes from.

This is a new phenomenon in human history. Except for the last 150 years or so, everyone knew where their light and heat came from. It was right in front of them—the candle or oil lamp on the table or the fireplace in the room. If we didn’t make our candles at home or cut our firewood from a nearby woodlot, we knew who did.

With the industrial revolution came a disconnect between the source and the user; few of us knew where the coal or gas or oil originated that served our needs. After the electric light bulb was invented and household electricity became commonplace, we didn’t even have a flame to suggest the origins of our light and heat. It was akin to magic.

Even newer is the need to make political and economic decisions about energy and environment that affect our daily lives and those of future generations. As I listened to these children, I asked myself: When these kids become adults, how will they make informed decisions about these issues based on clear information and carefully gathered evidence?

I realized I needed to connect my subject with what students already knew, and saw that I could do so by relating the energy class to certain concepts in the standard curriculum—photosynthesis, forms of energy, electro-magnets, and electrical circuits. Building on what they already had studied, the kids quickly connected the relevance of the topic of energy to what they hear in the news and from their families.

For the last few years I’ve been teaching this curriculum to students and teachers in grades five to eight. I’ve found that teachers and students alike are consistently enthusiastic about the topic, which is good news to me—kids and teachers know this topic is very relevant to their lives. One of the most engaging parts of these lessons is when kids experiment with generating electricity using miniature solar panels and wind turbines. Given a little time, students start exploring alternatives, stretching the possibilities of these materials. For instance, I’ve watched some groups experiment with changing the angle of the solar panels or the intensity of overhead light to see how these factors affect the number of volts the solar panels can generate.

I want students to see the complete picture behind electricity: why oil, coal and natural gas are called fossil fuels; how they’re extracted, transported and processed to become fuel for power plants; what comes out of the stacks when they’re burned; and the environmental consequences, including climate change, of this whole chain of events. If the power comes from a nuclear plant, issues of reactor safety and disposal of spent fuel are continuing challenges. Do we adults think of all this when we flip a light switch or use an appliance? If we do, we had to learn to think this way. As I teach these lessons, I hope students will grow up practicing more of this big-picture, everything’s-related, systems thinking.


Here at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment we believe firmly that kids need to be empowered to imagine and implement solutions rather than feel helpless in the face of environmental issues. With this in mind, my lessons don’t stop with the carbon cycle and the “bad news.” I move on to alternative energy and conservation. Students consistently come up with great ways to conserve energy at home and school. One reason I like to focus on electricity is that it’s one form of energy where children can take significant personal actions to reduce usage.

Teaching these Energy Investigations classes, and watching kids learn and take initiative about energy use, has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my career as an environmental educator. Children are our hope and our challenge. Equipping them with the knowledge and motivation to become engaged environmental citizens is a pleasure and privilege.

Micky McKinley is an educator/naturalist at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment. She has taught this energy curriculum at numerous schools in ten communities from Longmeadow to Greenfield.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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