Powering knowledge: Program helps kids learn about renewable energy

A boy enjoys learning more about wind turbines with a University of Northern Iowa Fabulous Resources for Energy Education wind turbine kit.

Building a model wind turbine or solar car is not out of reach for students, thanks to a unique program at the University of Northern Iowa.

Inspired by the memoir, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” about a young boy who built a 

windmill for his family’s electricity source, Fabulous Resources for Energy Education (F.R.E.E.) 

offers kits for students that put renewable resources into their own hands.

The kits have been available for more than 10 years, according to Patricia Higby, energy education

and outreach coordinator for the Center for Energy and Environmental Education (CEEE) at UNI, which oversees the F.R.E.E. program.

“Our materials were created with the help of teachers to be economical and durable for classroom use,” Higby says. “They are a great way to get kids interested in renewable energy sources for their homes and communities. They also are a gateway to exciting careers in the renewable energy field.”

The wind turbine kits — including a regular and “junior” version — come with pieces to be assembled that illustrate how the technology harnesses energy, while the solar car kits give 

students an up-close understanding of converting the sun’s rays into power. The program also offers a “Best Blades” kit, with nine propellers for experimentation and an Energy Educator’s Kit.

The CEEE’s mission is to empower Iowans with the knowledge, inspiration and tools to create a sustainable future. F.R.E.E. falls under this mission with its educational materials and activities 

that give teachers and students affordable, well-designed tools to learn about solar and wind 


The kits are available to loan at no cost to Iowa educators and students. Those outside the

state are required to pay a small fee, with discounts available depending on the quantity ordered.

The kits also are available to scout and 4-H leaders, Sunday School teachers, private groups or anyone interested in teaching about energy.

Since 2009, more than 105,000 kindergarten through 12th grade students, 6,100 educations, and 21,000 adults have used the kits through the loan program, professional development workshops for teachers and outreach events, such as the upcoming Radish magazine Healthy Living Fair.

Higby says the feedback has been very positive.

“My walls are papered with notes supporting our program,” she says.

According to preliminary results of a survey distributed to educators who have used the materials, the kits are perceived as high-quality, and there is significant interest in seeing the program expand with new materials, activities and curriculum. Educators also praise the program for easy ordering and delivery, and prompt communication with F.R.E.E. staff.

Survey results also show that the majority of educators use the materials as a way for students 

to make connections between lessons and the real world, but they are also used to help gather

data, to catch students’ attention at the beginning of a unit, to test comprehension and to help 

students analyze data.

While all ages enjoy the kits, they are most used in grades four through six, according to Higby, when beginning energy concepts usually are taught. Younger students may need more help from adults with the models, but there are no age restrictions.

Higby says the kits initially were developed with grant funding, and support from the Iowa Energy

Center. The National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive 

Research also has provided funding.

These days, though, the goal is to make the program sustainable. Sales of the kits to non-Iowa

educators and groups go toward the cost of the materials, and to pay the UNI students who work

for F.R.E.E. Iowa educators will be required to pay shipping and handling charges beginning July 1, but will still be able to use the kits at no charge.

Being housed at UNI provides additional educational opportunities for college students, Higby

says. Industrial Technology majors create the kits, and have begun using a 3-D printer to 

make replacement parts. Marketing students manage F.R.E.E.’s online store and website.

Higby says F.R.E.E. will be set up at the Healthy Living Fair next to the I-Renew Imagine Energy


“Their solar panels will make the power for our glue guns and wind tunnel,” she says.

Visitors to the fair can explore solar and wind energy with the kits.

“If they want to take the kits home," she says, "they will be available for sale as well."

Jane Carlson is a frequent Radish contributor. For more information about Fabulous Resources for Energy Education (F.R.E.E.), visit  uni.edu/ceee/education/free-fabulous-resources-energy-education/free.   

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