ENERGY, Design Competition: Energy Systems of the Future!

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, April 5, 2010

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Green Design

Subject Area

  • Language Arts
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Technology

Lesson Time

1.5 hours


Energy is all around us. It helps us get where we’re going. It helps us keep our homes warm in the winter, cool in the summer and humming all day long. But where does energy come from? What are commonly used sources of energy now? And, more importantly, how do the energy sources, technologies and the systems that deliver this energy affect the environment and my local community?
Pylon_ds Power line towers such as the one above are only a small part of the complex system of energy delivery.
In this lesson we will explore the world of energy and how it is made available for our daily use. Students will be challenged to design a new energy system that minimizes impact on the environment and supports a healthy future for their local community.
Students will explore current sources of energy like fossil fuels and then learn about potential renewable sources like solar, wind and geothermal energy. Informed by these alternatives, students will design a new energy system for their local community. This lesson compliments core language arts benchmarks by providing ways for students to communicate, evaluate and research multiple kinds of information through design-thinking strategies and inquiry.

National Standards

Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects
Grades 6-8
Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects
Grades 6-8
Common Core Mathematics 6-8
Grade 7
Level III (Grade 6-8)
Level III (Grade 6-8)

Common Core State Standards

English Language Arts Standards: Speaking and Listening

Grade 6-8

Comprehension and Collaboration:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade level topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.1.A Come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.2 Analyze the purpose of information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and evaluate the motives (e.g., social, commercial, political) behind its presentation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.8.3 Delineate a speaker's argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and relevance and sufficiency of the evidence and identifying when irrelevant evidence is introduced.
Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.4 Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with relevant evidence, sound valid reasoning, and well-chosen details; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.5 Integrate multimedia and visual displays into presentations to clarify information, strengthen claims and evidence, and add interest.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate. (See grade 8 Language standards 1 and 3 here for specific expectations.)
English Language Arts Standards: Reading Informational Text Grade 6-8     Key Ideas and Details:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.1 Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.2 Determine two or more central ideas in a text and analyze their development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.3 Analyze the interactions between individuals, events, and ideas in a text (e.g., how ideas influence individuals or events, or how individuals influence ideas or events).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.5 Analyze the structure an author uses to organize a text, including how the major sections contribute to the whole and to the development of the ideas.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.6 Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author distinguishes his or her position from that of others.
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.7 Compare and contrast a text to an audio, video, or multimedia version of the text, analyzing each medium's portrayal of the subject (e.g., how the delivery of a speech affects the impact of the words).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.8 Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-7.9 Analyze how two or more authors writing about the same topic shape their presentations of key information by emphasizing different evidence or advancing different interpretations of facts.
Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.10 By the end of the year, read and comprehend literary nonfiction in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.
English Language Arts Standards: Science & Technical Subjects  Grade 6-8     Key Ideas and Details: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; provide an accurate summary of the text distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.3 Follow precisely a multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks.
Craft and Structure:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.4 Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 6-8 texts and topics.
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.7 Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.8 Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in a text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.9 Compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading a text on the same topic.
English Language Arts Standards Writing  Grade 6-8
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.2 Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.2.A Introduce a topic clearly, previewing what is to follow; organize ideas, concepts, and information into broader categories as appropriate to achieving purpose; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., charts, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.2.B Develop the topic with relevant, well-chosen facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.2.C Use appropriate and varied transitions to create cohesion and clarify the relationships among ideas and concepts.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.2.D Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.
Production and Distribution of Writing:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.5 With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas clearly and efficiently.
Research to Build and Present Knowledge:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.7 Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.


  •  Students will be introduced to various forms of renewable and conventional energy sources.
  •  Students will develop concepts and designs for energy infrastructure using renewable energy sources.
  •  Students will understand the impacts of electricity production on our air, land and water resources.
  •  Students will think critically about how to design a shared resource considering many elements like cost, impact and overall design.


Look at Cooper-Hewitt's Design for the Other 90% project, the Solar Home Lighting System developed by SELCO-India. How is this company progressing ideas of renewable energy through new technologies and community-based applications?
See Z-10 Concentrated Solar-power System and Hope Solar Tower


Poster paper, pencils


• Energy efficiency – The process of conserving energy using different strategies
• Photovoltaics – Photovoltaics are a scientific term for solar panels, converting the sun’s light energy into electricity. Photo = light and voltaics = electricity.
• Wind turbine – Wind turbines use wind energy to rotate a turbine that creates electricity.
• Kilowatt – a measure of power from electricity. (1000 watts = 1 kilowatt (kW))
• BTU – A British thermal unit, a measure of heat energy.
• Renewable Energy – Renewable energy is energy generated from natural resources such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, and geothermal heat, which are renewable (naturally replenished).
• Biomass – Electricity or heat energy generated from organized matter.
• Hydroelectric – Electricity generated from water.
• Smart Grid – A smart grid delivers electricity from suppliers to consumers using two-way digital technology to control appliances at consumers' homes to save energy, reduce cost and increase reliability and transparency.


Introduction to Energy: Heat and Electricity (10 minutes – Review)
Energy is the capacity to do work (movement, change, non-static, dynamic). Some common forms of energy include motion (kinetic), stored (potential), chemical (body), light, heat and sound. The most common forms of energy we interact with on a daily basis are electricity and heat. Electricity is a type of energy that utilizes the flow of electrons (charged particles) through a conductor (many things – namely wires – metal copper). We can measure electricity in the following way:
  • Volts – Flow (speed of energy)
  • Amps – Capacity (thickness of wire)
  • Power (watts) – measurement of electricity (NOT ENERGY)
  • Energy Equation: Power = Volts x Amps
Talk with your students about energy used in your school and in daily life. Play a jeopardy style game (see Jeopardy Worksheet) that provides students with some interesting facts about energy use in the US. Log on to for lots of fun facts like:
  •  Coal is the most common fuel for generating electricity in the United States.
  •  In 2007, nearly half (49%) of the Country's 4.1 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity used coal as its source of energy. (See PDF for more jeopardy questions and answers)
Transition to a discussion about power plants. Where and how is electricity produced? At its simplest, electricity production relies on the rotation of a turbine – a large shaft with blades – at a power plant. What forces the turbine to turn is steam that is heated up in large furnaces. The furnaces in a power plant are powered by fossil fuels: natural gas, coal and fuel oil. The turbine is connected to a long shaft of magnets surrounded by copper wire. The rotation of magnets against the copper generates electricity.
This coal-fired power plant in Arizona is a typical means of energy production in the United States.
Unfortunately, the use of power plants have some negative impacts on our environment. The use of fossil fuels releases air emissions into the atmosphere like carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, mercury and nitrogen oxides. These contribute to issues like climate change, asthma and other forms of environmental degradation.
Focus on Technology
Take some time to focus on the technologies behind common electricity grids and production systems. Some notable areas to focus on include:
  •  Circuits - Electricity travels in closed loops, or circuits. It must have a complete path before the electrons can move. If a circuit is open, the electrons cannot flow. When we flip on a light switch, we close a circuit. The electricity flows from an electric wire, through the light bulb, and back out another wire.
  •  Transformers  - To solve the problem of sending electricity over long distances, inventor William Stanley developed a device called a transformer. The electricity produced by a generator travels along cables to a transformer, which changes electricity from low voltage to high voltage. Electricity can be moved long distances more efficiently using high voltage. Transmission lines are used to carry the electricity to a substation. Substations have transformers that change the high voltage electricity into lower voltage electricity. From the substation, distribution lines carry the electricity to homes, offices, and factories, which require low voltage electricity.
  •  Turbines - An electric utility power station uses either a turbine, engine, water wheel, or other similar machine to drive an electric generator — a device that converts mechanical or chemical energy to electricity. Steam turbines, internal-combustion engines, gas combustion turbines, water turbines, and wind turbines are the most common methods to generate electricity.
Environmental Impacts (10 minutes – Investigate)
Investigate the environmental impacts associated with electricity use more in depth through student-led research and discussion. Although electricity is a clean and relatively safe form of energy to use, there are environmental impacts associated with the production and transmission of electricity. Nearly all types of electric power plants have some impacts or effects on the environment, some more than others.
Discuss with students some common impacts:
  •  All power generators or plants have a physical footprint (the area where they are placed or located).
  •  Emissions that result from the combustion of these fuels include:
  •  Carbon dioxide (CO2)
  •  Carbon monoxide (CO)
  •  Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
  •  Nitrogen oxides (NOX)
  •  Particulate matter (PM)
  •  Heavy metals such as mercury
  •  Nearly all combustion byproducts have negative impacts on the environment and human health:
  •  Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and a source of global warming. SO2 causes acid rain, which is harmful to plants and to animals that live in water, and it worsens or causes respiratory illnesses and heart diseases, particularly in children and the elderly.
  •  NOX contributes to ground level ozone, which irritates and damages the lungs.
  •  PM results in hazy conditions in cites and scenic areas, and, along with ozone, contributes to asthma and chronic bronchitis, especially in children and the elderly. Very small, or “fine PM” is also thought to cause emphysema and lung cancer.
  •  Heavy metals such as mercury can be hazardous to human and animal health.
Once you’ve discussed some of the general environmental impacts associated with electricity and energy usage, encourage students to investigate energy sources and ecological impacts in their local community. Where does the electricity come from in your municipality, for your school? Get a copy of school energy bills if possible. Collect research and discuss as a class.
Ask students to conduct research that will help to fill out the following matrix:

Energy Provider/Source (who is the service provider?)

Consumption Levels

Environmental Impacts

Electricity ( ____)

Your School (kw-h), Home (kw-h), City/Town (kw-h)

Air Quality, Water Quality, Land Footprint, Carbon Emissions

Natural Gas/Oil (_______)

Your School (BTUs), Home (BTUs), City/Town (BTUs)

Air Quality, Water Quality, Land Footprint, Carbon Emissions


What are some solutions? Discuss renewable energy sources and talk about communities that are making use of renewable energy sources.
  •  Biomass – A renewable energy that uses discarded organic wastes
  •  Water (hydropower and oceanpower) – Uses the movement and flow of water to generate electricity (See BioWAVE Ocean-Energy Systems in the 2010 National Design Triennial)
  •  Geothermal – An energy source that uses the heat difference found in the earth to create steam or heat water that can be used to regulate temperatures or generate electricity.
  •  Wind – An energy source that exploits the power of wind through a turbine.
These wind turbines are the most common means of harvesting wind energy.  An alternative to this design, the M10 Kite-power System, appears in the Triennial.
  • Solar (Photovoltaic and Solar Thermal) – PV systems convert the sun’s light into electricity. Solar thermal systems use the sun’s heat energy to create electricity or heat for a home/building.
Make a language arts connection here with free-form writing time, oral discussions and essay writing.
Energy Design Challenge (10 minutes - Frame/Reframe)
As a segway, talk about how energy gets from the power plant to your school. Power is transported by an energy grid through power lines, transistors and other hubs. Many local grids are interconnected for reliability and commercial purposes, forming larger, more dependable networks to maximize coordination and planning. These networks extend throughout many states.
After talking about some problems and solutions associated with energy usage, present the design challenge. Each student or team of students will develop a new energy system for your community that uses renewable sources of energy.
The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) was established to ensure that the grid in the United States was reliable, adequate, and secure. Most grids, depending on the location and the utility, are indirectly connected to dozens and often hundreds of power plants. Some power consumed in the United States is imported from Canada and Mexico.
This grid transports electricity around the country. It all starts at the power plant, where electricity is produced. The electricity then flows through transistors and other equipment to buildings like your school. Most grids are centralized, meaning that if one part of the power system is disrupted, the whole area goes out. The grid also works with an alternating current form of electricity transportation which makes it difficult to hook up renewable energy systems like wind turbines and PV arrays because they function with a direct current distribution process.
Fortunately, many towns and cities are looking into Smart Grid technologies. A smart grid delivers electricity from suppliers to consumers using two-way digital technology to control appliances at consumers' homes to save energy, reduce cost and increase reliability and transparency. Many smart grids are distributed, meaning a power outage can be isolated. The grids also allow for DC current and small energy systems to be hooked into the grid.
Smart Grid Design Lab (20 minutes - Generate Possible Solutions)
Before beginning your design lab, use one of the 2010 National Design Triennial’s case studies to spur some creative thought about new energy delivery and production systems.
  •  Z-10 Concentrated Solar-power System - The Z-10 concentrated solar-power system, designed by Ezri Tarazi and Ori Levin from Tarazi Studio, uses simple mirrors to gather and focus light onto a small, fifteen-square-inch “generator” that converts sunlight into electrical and thermal energy. The overall system is a parabolic optical dish, which serves as a tracker, following the sun from dawn until dusk, much like a sunflower. In April 2009, the first field of thirty-two concentrated solar dishes was installed in Kibbutz Yavne, a community of 1,100 inhabitants near Tel Aviv, where it is expected to generate one-third of the kibbutz’s electricity needs and all of its hot water.
  •  Hope Solar Tower - Solar towers capture solar energy to produce electricity. The Australian company EnviroMission is currently commercializing solar-tower technology. The Hope solar tower operates by collecting the sun’s radiation to heat a large body of air under an expansive collector zone, which acts as a giant greenhouse. Based on the principle that heat rises, this air flows towards the center of the collector through electricity generating turbines and up and out of the tower, like a chimney. A single 200-megawatt solar tower is estimated to produce enough electricity to power approximately half a million households, preventing more than one million tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere.
  •  bioWAVE Ocean-wave Energy System - The bioWAVE, developed by Australia-based BioPower Systems, is a new device that harnesses the power of ocean waves and converts it into smart grid–connected electricity. Like wind and solar energy, ocean-wave energy is an abundant source of renewable energy, with coastlines awash with untapped clean power. But rather than a visually obtrusive system installed at or near the water’s surface, the bioWAVE is an underwater unit mounted on the seabed, imitating the swaying motion of sea plants. The bioWAVE is designed to orient itself to the direction of waves and to lie flat when extreme conditions prevail. The swaying motion activated by the ocean’s fluctuations is used to drive an onboard generator that produces electrical power, delivered ashore via a subsea cable. Each unit is expected to generate up to two megawatts of energy, and multiple machines can be deployed as a farm, harvesting enough clean power to meet utility-scale electricity needs.
Divide students into design teams and present everyone with the core design challenge: What is the energy system of the future? How can our energy grid and power plant system be designed more efficiently and have less impact on the environment?
To provide context, discuss some barriers to new energy distribution systems. Explain why more communities aren’t switching to a renewable energy system. Some problems include:
  •  Infrastructure questions
  •  Capital cost
  •  Reliability
Many communities are responding to these challenges, however, through:
  •  Community sharing programs – communities share the cost of installing a small energy system that offsets multiple homes or buildings.
  •  Consumer Hookup or “Smart Meters” – many communities now have smart meters which help them monitor their energy efficiency measures and reduce their consumption levels.
The goal of this design challenge is to develop a new energy system for the students' community, incorporating the following elements:
  •  Each team must choose one or more renewable energy source to use.
  •  Create a description of the energy source and estimate the cost and size of implementation.
  •  Create a map that shows how energy will get to consumers and how you will convince them  to “buy” into the new system.
Encourage each team to create sketches and diagrams of how their new system would work. Each team should create a mock “power authority” to oversee their operations.
Math Connection
As another activity extension, help students measure how many wind turbines, solar panels or other power systems would be needed to power their school, home or a skyscraper. Start by talking about the general equation of energy: energy = power x time. We measure “power” in a unit called watts, the rate at which energy is produced or consumed in time. Because we don’t necessarily use electricity all of the time, we also must factor in time to get a good approximation of how much electricity is being used. The final unit typically used is thus the kilowatt-hour or kw/h.
Directions: Using the consumption and output data below, determine how many wind turbines, photovoltaic (solar) systems or ocean power systems your home, school and a larger building would need to have sufficient electricity each month.
Average Consumption Data:
  • The average home consumes about 800 kw/h of electricity each month 
  • A school consumes on average 10,000 kw/h of electricity each month
  • A larger sized building on average consumes 25,000 kw/h each month
Average Output Data:
  •  Wind Turbine – 30-40 kw/h of electricity
  •  PV Arrays – 1000 kw/h of electricity
  • Ocean Power System – 500 kw/h of electricity
For more complex math problems, change each of the values presented, extract the time or power values. Give each student the voltage and the amperage of certain appliances and ask them to factor inefficiencies like availability of wind, sun or oceanic currents.
Home - 20 wind turbines, 1 PV arrays and 1.6 Ocean Power Systems
School – 250 wind turbines, 10 PV Arrays, 20 Ocean Power Systems
Large Building – 625 wind turbines, 25 PV Arrays, 50 Ocean Power Systems
Community Board Meeting (15 minutes)
After a design session, students will present their designs in a community board style critique. Community boards are elected to ensure that local people have a voice on local issues and to provide a direct link between their community and policy making. Each team will have 5 minutes to present their new energy systems. The community board will vote on whether it’s a good choice for their community. (Share and Evaluate)
After voting, discuss how these new energy systems could help improve environmental quality around the area. Would it lessen air pollution, water quality, etc.?
The community board should choose one final system as the top choice. Send it to local utility or the municipality for review. (Finalize and Articulate)


Reflection Questions
  • How much power will you use this evening while you are at home?  Can you think of three ways to reduce this?
  • What are some words or images that come to mind when you hear the word “energy”?  Feel free to write or sketch your response.
  • Do you think that better designs arise from competing against your classmates or from working with them?  Why?

Enrichment Extension Activities

Differentiation for Elementary School:
  • You can find useful lesson plans, activities and games at that can help your students gain a better understanding of energy, renewable sources of energy and the environmental impact of energy consumption.
  • Try Squishy Circuits to demonstrate the flow of electricity through open and closed circuits using a fun material - play dough!
  • For the design challenge, ask your students to imagine what renewable source of energy they can use to power their Squishy Circuit instead of the battery. How can they multiply that by hundreds or thousands to supply the entire city with electricity? They can draw sketches and maps of their ideas to share with the class.
Differentiation for High School:
  • Students can visit a local power plant and interview experts about the power system currently employed in their community. If possible, they can visit a renewable power station, as well, and inquire about the challenges facing their community in implementing new energy sources. If a visit in person is not possible, conduct an online visit using Skype.
  • The research from these interviews should inform the students' design choices in creating the energy infrastructure of the future.

Related Files

  1. This is a very well organized and developed lesson. The objectives are clear and the design process is weaved in nicely with the development of students’ own energy systems. This lesson also lends itself to the interpretation and representation of data (CCS.5.MD.2). There is lots of data to connect the information about different energy sources and their effects on the environment. The use of tables and graphs would be another layer to this lesson and one that can help teach another specific math standard. Providing these tables and graphs for the teachers using the lesson would be beneficial as well.

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