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Creating a Hydro Educational Curriculum for Fourth-Grade Students

To help area fourth-grade students appreciate the Columbia River and its resources, Chelan County Public Utility District (PUD) and the Wenatchee School District developed an educational program that revolves around its 1,295-MW Rocky Reach project. This three-day event, known as River of Power, is the culmination of a partnership that has brought about 1,350 area students to the project over the past three years. The program takes fourth graders through nine learning activities, where they can build a dam, become a spinning turbine, measure the power of falling water, and much more. River of Power has proven so popular, Chelan County PUD expanded participation to two private schools and plans to involve other school districts within its serv- ice territory.

Designing the educational program

In 2002, as part of its focus on Washington state history, the Wenatchee School District sought a way to help fourth-grade students appreciate the Columbia River and its resources. The school district approached Chelan County PUD as a partner in the effort. The two groups set up a pilot program, culminating in a one-day program at Rocky Reach Dam for the six lead teachers. Once the pilot year was successfully completed, Chelan County PUD and the Wenatchee School District set out to develop a complete program.

In designing the activities and flow for each of the three field days at the dam, curriculum writers borrowed from the “Disneyland principles.” These five principles ensure a successful science learning experience:

  1. Participants want to come back because they did not get to do everything.
  2. Music is embedded in the event.
  3. Adequate food and drink are ensured.
  4. A wide variety of activities are offered.
  5. Participants get something to take home to remember the experience.

Developing classroom materials

Each River of Power partner brings its expertise and abilities to the program. Wenatchee School District is responsible for maintaining the curriculum, which was written by the district’s Science Field Experiences Consultant. The curriculum meets all Washington state fourth-grade-level expectations. In the classroom, students participate in nine science lessons on the hydrologic cycle, hydropower, the watershed, the Columbia River timeline, building Rocky Reach Dam, generation, transmission, salmon recovery, and solar power.


Fourth-grade students gather on the lawn outside the 1,287-MW Rocky Reach project to learn about how the dam affects fish as part of Chelan County Public Utility District’s three-day River of Power educational program.
Click here to enlarge image

Chelan County PUD initially built 25 classroom kits and is responsible for refurbishing them annually. These kits contain all the materials required for classroom demonstrations and experiments, including teacher, librarian, and music teacher guides. Chelan County PUD also prints materials for the classroom and the dam visit, such as teaching manuals, posters, laminated instruction cards, and more than 650 student handbooks and journals.

Coordinating the visit to Rocky Reach

Wenatchee School District transports the students to Rocky Reach and provides certified substitute teachers for each learning station students visit. A typical day starts as school buses spill noisy fourth-graders across the parking lot and into small groups to begin a journey through the world of local history and hydropower. Each group is assigned to a volunteer guide, typically a Chelan County PUD employee. Guides take the children from station to station during the day at the dam. In 2005, 40 Chelan County PUD employees provided 468 volunteer hours, both before and during the event, keeping costs down.

Participating in nine learning activities

Before the day is over, students travel to nine stations located inside the dam and on the park grounds outside the dam to participate in different learning activities. Each student has the opportunity to build a dam, become a spinning turbine, measure the power of falling water, explore electric circuits, study fish, hold fish tags, measure water temperature, see solar energy at work, and write about the day’s experiences.

At the “Building a Dam” station, each student is assigned a 10-gallon aquarium containing wet sand that serves as the river bed. The student then is given cardboard and instructed to construct a dam in the sand. Water is then poured on the high side of the dam so the student can discover the dam’s strength in holding the water back. This learning station is designed to teach how dissimilar dam structures provide different levels of resistance against the water.

Costs to produce the program

Chelan County PUD’s total budget for the program is no more than $10,000 a year, although the utility rarely spends that much. The 25 classroom kits cost $400 each to develop and about $30 a year to refurbish.

Plans for expansion

The first full River of Power program was implemented in the spring of 2004, and it has drawn praise from all involved. Fourth-grade teacher Rebecca Britt says, “By the time we finish two months of classroom work and related activity stations, the students are anxious to visit Rocky Reach Dam. Many students (both English- and Spanish- speaking) have commented that they have taken their families back to the dam on a weekend, and the child acted as the guide to share information about the river, the dam, and hydroelectric power.”

The proven success of the program provides a springboard for expansion. In 2005, two private schools participated. In addition, the North Central Educational Service District (NCESD) paid for substitute teachers for the 2006 program. NCESD Superintendent Richard McBride says River of Power has the full support of school principals, and the NCESD Board of Directors is delighted to assist.

The utility hopes this program can be expanded to include other school districts within the Chelan County PUD service territory. The Entiat School District accepted an invitation to participate beginning in 2006. In addition, Chelan County PUD plans to gradually add the rest of the schools in the county – more than 30 in all.

Chelan County PUD won a 2006 Hydro Achievement Award for Public Education from the National Hydropower Association for the River of Power program.

Lessons learned

In the course of developing this program, Chelan County PUD has learned several lessons other hydro project owners could apply:

– By Robert Bauer, public education specialist, Chelan County PUD, P.O. Box 1237, Wenatchee, WA 98807; (1) 509-661-4939; E-mail: robert.bauer@ chelanpud.org.


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