How Discovering Switch Classroom is Like Giving a Mouse a Cookie

Rachel Petrik-Finley  ·  SEA Teacher Advisory Council
October 21, 2021

When I started teaching AP Environmental Science, I had to learn how to teach about electricity. My background was in the biological sciences, and it had been too long since my high school or college classes for me to recall the minutiae of this information. 

A quick online search led me to Switch Energy Alliance (SEA) videos, where I found that explaining what electricity is and how it’s generated was fairly simple: electricity is just the flow of electrons, like water flowing. So far pretty easy, but, just like a mouse who has been given a cookie, now I wanted some milk. I wanted to know more.

I learned that most of the electricity in the United States is generated by heating water to turn a turbine that powers a generator. Wow! Now you have electricity (I still love to explain the simplicity of the process to my students). But, now that I had some milk, wouldn’t a straw be nice?

Understanding the what and how of electricity was only the starting point for me to understand why we use the sources of energy we do. That’s when I watched the SEA video The Demand Curve. This video explains the complex system required to simply turn on the lights. Like a mouse with a cookie, I kept asking for more, and SEA was there to deliver. 

In 2019, SEA formed their Teacher Advisory Council (TAC). The SEA TAC developed an entire energy curriculum for use on a new and innovative online learning platform, Switch Classroom, which was launched in the fall of 2020. Through Switch Classroom, teachers can not only find helpful videos like The Demand Curve, but teacher-designed lessons that accompany each one to use with their students. The lessons on Switch Classroom not only explain the complexity of energy in general, but also the specific limitations and advantages of each type of energy. 

You will likely find that, just like a mouse with a cookie, once you start using one lesson from Switch Classroom, you’ll quickly want to use more.

Here’s a sequence of lessons, along with their descriptions, to help you and your students start on your energy journey:

  • Electricity Supply & Demand (includes The Demand Curve) – Most people don’t often think about how the demand for electricity changes throughout the 24-hour day, but it does, and very predictably! In this lesson, baseload and peakload will be defined and compared. This lesson also explores how demand varies over a 24-hour period and how the demand can be met with diverse energy resources.
  • Science and Sources of Electricity – Most of the world’s electricity is produced by generators. How do generators work? The vast majority use some type of fuel to boil water and generate steam, which turns a turbine, and runs a generator to make electricity. This lesson also examines the typical fuel sources used to make electricity and the contribution of each.
  • Electric Power Infrastructure – Power plants run generators to produce the vast majority of our electricity. Since our storage capacity for electricity is tiny compared to the massive demand, electricity must be generated and used on demand, 24 hours each day. Students will follow electricity from the power plant into their homes, including the physical and human parts of the utility system called the electric grid.
  • The Importance of Storing Electricity – There is a basic problem some of the smartest people in the world are trying to solve. The issue is that we generate electricity at the same time people use it. This is a problem because some sources of energy—like solar and wind—may not be available when we need them the most. They are intermittent. This lesson examines how improved storage capacity would increase efficiency and lower costs, and discusses the options and challenges to address energy storage at scale.
  • Science of Solar – The sun, which has been powering Earth for 4.5 billion years, produces enough light in one day to power the entire world for a year. But, that is only useful to human beings if we can efficiently and affordably capture the sun’s energy. Let’s look at how solar panels work, how they can be made cheaper or more efficiently, and how they differ from solar mirrors.
  • The Science of Wind – Wind power works in much the same way as those brightly colored pinwheels you might have played with as a kid, only at a grander scale. Let’s learn how wind power works and explore the mix of conditions that make an area ideal for windfarms. This lesson examines Texas as an example, which currently leads the U.S. in wind power generation.

Rachel Petrik-Finley
Switch Energy Alliance Teacher Advisory Council Member (2019 – 2021)
Garfield High School, Seattle, WA
AP Environmental Science Teacher


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