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Energy LEAP engages N.C. high school students in latest energy science 

June 27, 2024 Students in front of solar panels.

This past summer, IE’s Center for Public Engagement with Science (CPES) hosted the Energy Literacy, Engagement and Action Program (Energy LEAP), a week-long program dedicated to engaging high school students in an exploration of the energy sources used to power society. Each year, the program is hosted in Phillips Hall in partnership with UNC-Chapel Hill’s Physics Department. 

“We want to provide youth with an opportunity to learn about energy science in an engaging, hands-on way and learn about career opportunities, education opportunities and have opportunities to meet people who work in energy sciences,” said Grant Parkins, a watershed education coordinator in the Center for Public Engagement with Science and program director for Energy LEAP.  

The program is free for students and funded by the Duke Energy Foundation and the UNC Institute for the Environment. 

Students participated in a range of hands-on STEM activities throughout the week, including building hydropower devices, testing solar panels and participating in field trips. 

Students stand in front of solar panels on a field trip.

One field trip was a visit to a solar farm in Mebane, North Carolina. Students spoke with a sheep herder from Carolina Solar who takes the herd from farm to farm to graze and lower maintenance costs. He explained to the youth how electricity goes onto the power grid and discussed the benefits of maintaining solar panels for farmers.  

“It was really cool for them to see the intersection of two different sectors, agriculture and energy production, working together,” CPES intern Zoe Schubert said. 

Schubert, a junior at UNC-CH studying environmental science, assisted with administrative tasks and created engaging activities for students. She also led many of the activities and organized guest speakers throughout the week. 

“I like to focus a lot on the environmental stance and why it’s so important for us to transition to renewable energy,” Schubert said. 

Students sitting around a table with an experiment.

Some activities were aimed at educating students about energy use in their daily lives. Students received “Kill-A-Watt” meters to take home and test energy consumption of different appliances, including lamps and hairdryers, to promote awareness of household energy use.   

Students learned to approach activities with critical thinking and creativity. In design lab activities such as designing a wind turbine, students receive materials and brief instructions before planning, building and testing their designs.  

“I love to give students a challenge and let them approach it using all of their creativity without constraining them to a strict lab protocol,” Parkins said.  

Although the program is free to attend, prospective students must go through an application process. The program targets students from Orange, Durham, Chatham and Alamance counties. 

Two students laugh while setting up an experiment.

Despite the program’s success, it will look a little different next year, due to reduced funding.  

However, the program’s goal of using the topic of energy to inspire students in STEM fields will remain the same. 

Instead of a week-long summer program, students will participate in two Saturday Academies framed as “Solutions Saturdays” during the academic year. While the logistics are still in the planning stages, students can expect a similar format of hands-on activities, lab tours, and guest speakers to learn about low-carbon solutions for the energy sector. 

“This program allows young people, who are going to be the leaders of tomorrow, to think about complex issues, like society’s use of energy, in unique ways and use their creativity to learn,” Parkins said.  

Energy LEAP is supported by a grant from the Duke Energy Foundation. K-12 Science Education Manager Dana Haine is the principal investigator on this grant, and the funding also supports energy-focused teacher professional development. 

Story by Natalie Peoples
Natalie Peoples is a student at UNC-Chapel Hill. Peoples is currently a junior from Kensington, Maryland, pursuing a double major in journalism and environmental science. In addition to her work as a communications intern for the Institute for the Environment, she has experience in photojournalism and environmental research. Peoples plans to pursue a career in environmental journalism with a special interest in marine science.