By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
PAYSON, Ill. -- Turning the lights on in Jenifer Buckert's sixth-grade class took more than just flipping the switch.
Students built an electrical circuit to turn on light bulbs.
"They're learning they have to have a closed circuit for a light to turn on," Buckert said. "The power has to be able to go through the light and back to the battery for the light to turn on. That creates a closed circuit rather than an open circuit."
Focusing on some basics of electrical engineering came through a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, kit bought with a $500 mini-grant through the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
NREA sponsors 10 mini-grants each year available to rural K-12 classroom teachers whose school, community or students' homes is served by a local rural electric cooperative. The Payson School District won two of the grants for the STEM kit requested by teacher Kristina Dettlaff and for an energy assistance program utilizing technology and science spearheaded by high school science teacher Darwin Smith.
"Considering that this is a national competition, open to schools in cooperative territories across the United States, I'm excited to hear that two of the 10 grants were awarded locally," said Laura Dotson, communications coordinator of Adams Electric Cooperative. "Our winners are truly dedicated to their students and are reaching above and beyond to enhance students' learning opportunities."
Dettlaff said the STEM kit provides a hands-on opportunity for students to build important science-based skills.
"It's not just a kit that tells them what to do. It gives them guidelines, and they have to keep improving upon the circuits they create," said Dettlaff, who is on maternity leave with Buckert taking over her classes. "A lot of times in school, once you meet the requirement, you're done. This has them look at it critically. What can they do better?"
Buckert said students will spend about four weeks working with the kit, with the final project calling for designing a circuit to sound an alarm.
"It's a lot better than just reading the book and filling out worksheets," Buckert said.
Smith's project will have high school students going out into the community to measure energy efficiency in residential homes.
The grant provided funds for a laptop and infrared thermometers. Students will use the thermometers to take temperature readings along the outside surface of homes to see where they're losing heat in winter and analyze the data collected. Adams Electric then can offer advice to homeowners about ways to remedy energy loss including sealing leaks and improving insulation.
"It gives them an opportunity to use a little bit of technology, the infrared thermometers, and putting that into some kind of a data photograph, then experience dealing with the public and with an agency like the rural electric cooperative," Smith said.
"It gives them some understanding science is not just about taking measurements, doing calculations. It's also working with people. That's an important part of science work today. People have to work in teams."
Smith hopes to launch the project this school year, if possible, but the students can continue the work in the 2013-14 school year.
The grant will provide benefits to students, the science department and the community.
"When you get a grant project to provide some service to the community and equipment needed to provide some additional resources for the science department, it's a win-win," he said. "Any grant to get laptops is great, and infrared thermometers are very handy in the lab."