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Illinois State helps teachers get smarter about electricity grid

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Dad knew.

He told us to turn the lights out before we left the room. But there’s a lot more the next generation is going to learn about how to lower electricity bills, and they’re going to learn that in school.

The Center for Renewable Energy at Illinois State University received a $450,000 grant to train K-12 teachers through the Smart Grid for Schools program, which offers them the opportunity to learn about the new technology being rolled out by utilities. “Smart grid” refers to the modernization of the electrical grid. Although that might sound a bit complex, a smart electrical grid is like a smartphone―it’s computerized.

“We’re teaching the next generation about the future of electricity and what it will enable them to do, and we’re doing it in a very unique way,” said David Loomis, director of Illinois State’s Center for Renewable Energy. “As they learn, they can teach their parents.”

The center is working with CeMaST (Illinois State’s Center for Mathematics Science and Technology) to build models of the electrical grid and 6-foot tall displays of rooms in a typical home. The models are realistic, with full-sized appliances and a family room with a 40-inch TV and game system plugged in. Each room has a computer monitor so students can see, and manipulate, how much electricity is being used.

Matt and Emma with the city

The display will be taken to schools this fall as part of a $450,000 grant to educate students on smart grid technology.

Matt Aldeman, senior energy analyst for the Center for Renewable Energy, is building a small city, showing how electricity is carried from a power plant through transmission towers to landmarks like Chicago’s Willis Tower and residential neighborhoods.

The models include “smart meters,” which are digital meters that are already being installed in homes in northern Illinois. Smart meters collect energy-usage information and allow consumers 24-hour access to that information, giving them more control over their costs.

Illinois State’s program will include a smartphone application that will allow students to see how the time of day changes the rate, telling them when they should throw that load of laundry in or run the dishwasher to save money.

“The whole idea is to teach kids how a smart meter benefits consumers and the utilities,” Aldeman said. “It benefits customers by providing information to them, and it benefits utilities by allowing them to improve reliability, which also helps the customer.”

A modernized electrical grid will detect and correct issues before they can cause problems, such as a power outage. Students will be able to demonstrate that on the grid model.

Area teachers can become a certified smart grid educator, allowing them use of the models, by participating in a three-hour workshop August 4 or September 6 in Bloomington. For more information or to register, contact Brad Christensen or Sara McCubbins at

The grant was presented by the Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation. Illinois State was one of nine recipients of the inaugural grant awards to support smart grid consumer education projects.

Kate Arthur can be reached at