Coweta-Fayette EMC launched the STEM Teachers Alternative Energy Summer Adventure to help local teachers teach about the future of energy in their classrooms.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Andy Johns: What are some ways that you can get local educators to help tell your story? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns with WordSouth. I’m your host, and I’m joined on this episode with Maggie Reenstra, who is a community and economic development coordinator with Coweta-Fayette EMC in Georgia. Maggie, thanks for joining me.
Maggie Reenstra: Thank you for having me.
Andy Johns: Well, it’s a teach the teacher program. It’s a really cool idea. To give full credit, I did see the article in RE Magazine from NRECA. It is a really cool program, and I wanted to be sure to have you on Maggie so that we could talk through that and kind of share the idea around it. So go ahead if you don’t mind, just give us an overview about the program.
Maggie Reenstra: Sure. So our Alternative Energy Summer Adventure, we held it this past summer, the first one, and our goal was to get teachers excited about bringing in STEM education and STEM lessons related to the energy industry. And so we had an application process for teachers within our service territory. Most of them were STEM, but we did have a few other teaching areas, but we took them to places like the Georgia Tech Kendeda Building for Innovative and Sustainable Design. We took them to our solar farm as well to two private solar arrays. We had some industry speakers come in and talk about how important it is that sustainability is addressed for expansion and investment dollars from their parent companies. And then on the final day, we had retired teachers from the University of West Georgia come in and teach the teachers how to bring experiments and activities into the classroom to get their students excited about hands on learning, about the energy industry, the different types of jobs and careers that are available. And from that, that was a three day program, and I haven’t had a week go by that I haven’t gotten communication from those teachers. It is going very well in the schools.
Andy Johns: Excellent. It is always good to get the positive feedback like that, for sure. Well, I have a fourth grader, and STEM is kind of a major trend the last few years among grade schools. I know at their school, they’ve just changed out one of the rooms to be a STEM lab. How did you guys come about? Where did the idea come from, and how did you guys see that the STEM education kind of fit in so well with the co-op’s mission?
Maggie Reenstra: Well, there is another EMC in Georgia called Green Power EMC, and for decades they have been working on alternative energy. They were one of the first solar energy commercial utility applications within the state. Within that organization, they have something called the Spark Curriculum. And so for years, we’ve been creating this curriculum that we hoped to get it into the schools. They do work with the Department of Education within Georgia so that it is accredited. It follows all the standards. And so we have this resource available to us, but like many EMCs, we didn’t have anybody in the position who was really focused on it. And so when I came on board in 2019, that was one of the things that they really wanted me to work on. So my first step was to find the director of STEM education in Coweta county and ask if he might be interested in this. And it exploded from there. So everybody is interested in STEM, but we didn’t want it to be an extra responsibility on the teachers to come up with additional work. What we have been able to do through our work with the state and these teachers who wrote the curriculum, is come up with more exciting, more hands on, more relevant to the student curriculum that satisfies every requirement the teachers have to do. And then we come in and help them deploy it. So it’s been a real win-win for us. We have the curriculum. We want to get the information on the energy industry in there, and the teachers really appreciate the fact that we’ve done everything except just get it to them. And they’re able to run with it.
Andy Johns: Excellent. Now most of these teachers, are they elementary school, high school, or middle school? What are we talking about in terms of the teachers?
Maggie Reenstra: So the teachers on the tour were actually from every level from K through 12. We had an AP human geography teacher who wanted to talk about how important it was with global warming or climate change or the availability of energy, how that moves populations around the world. We had social studies and English teachers who were going to help the students write compelling arguments for and against the new energies, either in their school or their home. So we really have the entire gamut. The curriculum that is available is for middle and high school students, but because it all builds on each other, our elementary school teachers got an extra little direction on how to step back what we already had created. But we ran the gamut. We wanted to be sure that we had every level and a wide range of teachers were included.
Andy Johns: Got it. I can see several advantages to this. You know, you’re telling your story, and like I said at the beginning, you’re kind of getting them the ability to help tell your story. It’s also, I imagine, by the time you get to high school, it’s not a bad idea to start to think about recruitment and staff down the road and getting kids interested in related jobs. And there just seems to be a lot of benefits for the co-op and, the bigger picture of the industry in general. But what did you see were some of the major benefits for the co-op coming out of a program like this?
Maggie Reenstra: Yeah. So you mentioned talking about going into jobs, and a lot of counselors and parents are really, really good at directing their students towards a four year, for example, electrical engineering degree. But what was really powerful to see was our teachers, when we brought the industry in to talk about them. And we gave them the statistic from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that in the next 5-10 years, the number of solar installers and technicians will grow by 60%, and the numbers of linemen and solar specific jobs will grow. So what we were able to see in terms of utility is that we can’t get linemen. We can’t get enough engineers, and everybody around the country is seeing that. But what we really, really like to see with our teachers was how many of them during our discussion said, “Oh my gosh, I have this group of students, and I wasn’t really sure where they were going to be in STEM. We had never been given examples of how they could have a STEM career that wasn’t the ones we know: the engineering degree, the marketing degree, the business degree.” And so one of the most rewarding things personally, but also looking forward in staffing our utility for decades to come, is that people are starting to see the broad range of jobs and that STEM is not one path. There are many, and we have really enjoyed working with those classes that are not always given the most attention in a STEM learning environment.
Andy Johns: I think that’s great insight. You talked a little bit about how the teachers were surprised. What surprised you, or what surprised the other co-op staff? You know, throughout the programs, anything you learned or that surprised you along the way?
Maggie Reenstra: Well, I think like most parents and most people who aren’t in the school system every day, we know that our teachers work hard. We know that they’re not paid what they’re worth. We know that the resources aren’t always there. And I think that what many of us were surprised about was how passionate these teachers were. If given the information and the resources and the subject matter experts within the company who were willing to come out there, they were so appreciative and so excited. And they are passionately rolling this out. They are not just presenting a lesson. I think we were all very excited and really heartened by the fact that they loved this. They didn’t just come for the free trip to see this, that, and the other. They want to passionately change the lives of their children. And I think that made us all feel really good about the program, but also our future.
Andy Johns: Excellent. Yeah, I mean, we can all use a little bit of encouragement like that, so that’s excellent. I know there are probably some communicators listening, looking at everything they’re already doing. Tell me a little bit about what went into it for you. I know you said some of the curriculum was already developed. When did you start working on it? What all did it require from you and the team there at the co-op to make this happen?
Maggie Reenstra: Yeah. So we were going to start this a year and a half ago and then, of course, COVID hit. So by the time we were finally allowed back into the schools this spring, I would say it was probably April, and we rolled this program out in July. So it was a very frantic few months to get it organized. However, once we knew the curriculum we had and kind of what we wanted to include, really the logistics of organizing it — we are very blessed to be near Atlanta and have lots of examples of sustainable designs, solar, geothermal, EV charging stations or an EV dealership that powers their EVs with a solar canopy. So we have a lot of resources. So from then on, knowing that the curriculum, which was the most important part to have right, was already ready, then I just started to call and email and call-in favors and get our teachers into the right places to give them really good examples of how this curriculum is being deployed in the real world. So honestly, it was event planning 101 on steroids for about two or three months. But now that it’s done now, we can roll it out over and over and over.
Andy Johns: Well, and that’s where I was headed next. Is this something that you see doing every summer or every few years? Or where does it go from here? And I guess what did you learn along the way? Do you think it might be different next time you roll it out?
Maggie Reenstra: Yeah. So we do plan to do it next summer, and we anticipate that the demand will be high. So there’ll be another application process. But I also met with another school district last week, and they wanted to talk about doing one-day trips. So going to see something in the morning and having a curriculum day in the afternoon on their teacher learning days, their continuing education requirements. So we’re going to be able to do this three day thing in the summer. But it also looks like we’re going to be able to do a day here of training the teachers, and then also they are in the application process now for them to reach out to us and say, “This is what I want to teach. These are the people I think I would like to have in the classroom, whether it’s an engineer or marketer or whatever.” And then throughout the year, we’re hoping to be in the schools on a regular basis, delivering this information as an assistant to the teachers.
Andy Johns: Excellent. That sounds like that fits their schedule a little bit more. So it’s wonderful that you all are able to do that. So last question I have for you, if there are folks who are listening to this episode — I almost always close with a question like this — but if there are folks who are listening to this podcast, maybe they’re in your role or a similar role at their own local power company or if we’ve got somebody who’s at a telephone cooperative broadband company. I mean, this is something that I feel like other a lot of different areas could do. What advice would you have for them? Or if they’re listening to this and thinking, “That sounds great. I hope I can do that.” They may or may not be so close to a city like Atlanta, like you mentioned that being a big advantage. But what’s some advice you would have for somebody who is looking to start something who was inspired by this idea and wanted to do it at their own utility?
Maggie Reenstra: Yeah, if it’s new, I would say the biggest thing for me was having the support of my senior staff, my CEO and my board. So kind of drafting an idea of what it is you want to teach and have a very clear “why.” What is the benefit? What is the utility going to get out of this — either in the short term or the long term — and how does this satisfy our goals? And for us, this really satisfied our education, information service, and concern for community. So come up with that “why,” get a good draft, and then get a champion at the top. Because these things aren’t free. It’s going to cost a little bit of money or a whole lot of money and having a really clear idea of what it is, how it’s going to benefit you and getting someone to take that through for you has been really key.
Andy Johns: It’s always important, like you said, to get the buy-in from the top. So it sounds like a program with some clear benefits. It makes a lot of sense. And I guess the other question is, what did you guys do — since the podcast does deal with a lot of communicators and marketing folks — how did you guys publicize it? When you’re doing the application process, I’m imagining you’re going to have bigger demand on year two, but how did you talk about this? Or have you shared it? Or I don’t know if it was in your magazine or any other ways, but let’s talk a little bit about publicity or promoting something like this.
Maggie Reenstra: Absolutely. Yeah, I knew going in that I would get approved for the next year if we got a lot of traction for this year. And so we have a great marketing department here. And two of the folks, Rachel and Megan, joined me on the trip, and they were doing Facebook Live. They were interviewing the teachers. They were sharing photos of each location and tagging and linking. And so some of the views we got on this were 300-400 times what our normal posts are. So we had live in the moment social media marketing going on, and that worked very, very well. But then we also, of course, sent out press releases. We had some local media, just our local newspapers in our service territory were aware of it, and they got a press release. But then they called, and say “We would like a picture of this because this is our local story or this is our regional story.” So we worked very closely — thank goodness our marketing department is so easy to work with and so skilled. They had an entire plan for each day of which teacher taught where and what program, and we did little vignettes on the teachers that we thought would be important based on where we were visiting that day. So it was a very well thought out program, and I really appreciated that because that was that was not my skill, and they took care of that. So every day we were marketing. And even now, thanks to this podcast, we’re still getting the word out to more people about the benefit for their community that this could be.
Andy Johns: Well, there you go. I appreciate that, and I had not even really planned on asking that question, but I’m glad I did, because that’s smart of you all to take full advantage. When you’re doing something cool like that, you might as well take the extra efforts to help get the word out. So good for you all. Sounds like a great program. Sounds like they’re going to be teachers and students who benefit from that for years to come, and I appreciate you coming on to share that with us, Maggie.
Maggie Reenstra: Thank you so much for having me, and I appreciate the opportunity to spread the word about it.
Andy Johns: She is Maggie Reenstra. She is the community and economic development coordinator for Coweta-Fayette EMC in Georgia. I’m Andy Johns, and until we talk again. Keep telling your story.