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Power to the people in a natural way

Alternatives to fossil fuels will be vital to future generations, so it is important we start teaching children to take them seriously, writes Katrina Tweedie

Renewable energy: the phrase alone is enough to make children's eyes glaze over. Little wonder, then, that many teachers are reluctant to tackle the subject.

Diminishing fossil fuel supplies and an impending energy crisis mean little to youngsters until you warn them that their computer games equipment could run out of power: then they take notice.

Now a perspex box of tricks called the S Cube, or Solar Science Set, is helping to teach them the basics of two renewable energies - solar power and wind power - and show them that science can be fun.

Doing experiments is what children do naturally when playing with a new toy, learning how it works, discovering what it can do and finding out how to take it apart and rebuild it. The S Cube was designed robustly with this in mind. It contains a small wind turbine, a solar panel and instructions for generating energy.

Young children are transfixed when they are able to power a torch, sound recorder or thermometer with the energy of the sun or wind. Older pupils can hook up the capacitor and voltmeter included in the set to learn about the transfer of electrical energy.

The politics surrounding renewable energy, such as the impact of wind turbine farms, may not have had an impact on children yet but within 10 years many homes could have some form of on-site alternative power source.

Educating them now about the fuel crisis has become a priority and part of the school curriculum.

"It can be the driest subject unless you make it hands-on for children," says teacher Frances Simpson. She has been using the S Cube for the past year in schools across Renfrewshire, demonstrating complex energy sources in the simplest terms to P2-P7 pupils.

"The S Cube looks space-age and if they are allowed to play and experiment alone, it really grabs their attention," she says.

"Most children, even those with challenging behaviour, are interested in science if they can participate. For some, science can be the first door that opens at school.

"One boy, who was at the bottom in reading and writing skills, had an instinct for science. Within minutes he'd connected the S Cube together and lit its light bulbs, while everyone else was still trying to work it out.

"All of a sudden his self-esteem and status within the class rose, and I was able to get him to write about what he'd done."

Not every teacher has embraced the pack. "It can be intimidating at first," admits Ms Simpson, "but it's not rocket science and you soon pick up the basics. It's a confidence thing, but there will always be a certain group of teachers who will be put off by new teaching methods."

So far six regions across Scotland are using the S Cube in 60 schools, normally sharing one within a cluster of schools.

Ms Simpson is so convinced of its merits, she has written a back-to-basics manual to accompany the S Cube. At pound;450, the pack is not cheap but the Scottish Executive is so keen to improve science resources within schools, to encourage children into the field, that it recently announced pound;1,000 grants for science equipment and new projects, which some are using to buy the S Cube.

Rod Macneal, a former chartered accountant and renewable energy enthusiast, designed the S Cube with electronics engineer Mark Klimek. His Ayrshire-based company, Solar and Wind Applications, has tapped into the growing market for solar panels and wind turbines. He also realises that teaching children about renewable energy is educating tomorrow's customers.

"Children have a short attention span if they get bored or lost in the science behind something," says Mr Macneal (whose wife is a primary school teacher). "Keeping them interested can be a difficult and exhausting job. But if you get their attention, they are quick to learn and accept new ideas."

Within two decades, all homes will probably have a wind turbine or solar panel, Mr Macneal says. Alternative energy sources are no longer for idealists but a vital part of our national grid and the Scottish Executive has committed itself to producing 40 per cent of our energy needs from renewable sources within 20 years.

Henry Anderson, the head of Dolphin House, an outward bound centre at Culzean, Ayr, has incorporated alternative energy into his educational package. A solar panel powers the spot lights on a climbing wall children can use at night and they can access solar-powered radios and torches.

"There is an awakening about renewable energy," he says. "And despite our weather, we have more than enough daylight and wind to make it a practical solution."

Solar and Wind Applications; tel 01292 674033

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