Hands-on Activity: Powering Smallsburg

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

A power plant in Rhineland, Germany.
Students take a closer look at power plants
Copyright © Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ee/20060502_Lignite_powerplant_Weisweiler_Rhineland_Germany.jpg


In this activity, students act as power engineers by specifying the power plants to build for a community. They are given a budget, an expected power demand from the community, and different power plant options with corresponding environmental effects. They can work through this scenario as a class or on their own.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Many different types of engineering are needed to bring electric power to communities. Doing such is a technical process — how can you transform a fuel or water or wind or sunlight to electricity — as well a societal process with societal impacts — air quality, land use, water use and security. For these reasons, chemical, mechanical, structural, electrical, environmental and civil engineers all have roles to play in power engineering.

Pre-Req Knowledge

Lesson 8 of this unit, Powering the U.S., is strongly recommended.

Students need to know how to add whole numbers. Some background on electricity would be helpful, too.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Define renewable and non-renewable energy.
  • List some renewable and non-renewable energy sources.
  • Use what they learn about energy sources to act as engineers and decide the best power plants for a small community

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Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Solve two-step word problems using the four operations. Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity. Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding. (Grade 3) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Describe the energy transformation that takes place in electrical circuits where light, heat, sound, and magnetic effects are produced (Grade 4) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Use multiple resources – including print, electronic, and human – to locate information about different sources of renewable and nonrenewable energy (Grade 4) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

For each group:

For the entire class to share:


Why do lights turn on when you flip the light switch? (Answer: You provide the lights with a source of power or electricity when you turn on a light switch.) Where does that electricity come from? Depending on where you live, there could be a number of right answers to this question. There are many different ways to make electricity and many different sources of electricity. Electricity can be generated from water, wind, solar (the sun), nuclear and coal power. An electric power plant is a collection of buildings and structures used to make electricity.

A power plant will use either renewable or non-renewable energy sources. A renewable energy source is energy that is replaced at the same rate or faster than it is actually used. One example is a hydroelectric dam, which uses water to make electricity. (Though it would not be renewable if there was a drought, and the water level behind the dam started dropping!) Photovoltaic (PV) panels convert sunlight (solar) to electricity. They are a renewable energy source for the next billion years or so (or at least until our sun becomes a white dwarf star!). Do you think wind turbines are a renewable or non-renewable energy source? Well, as long as there is wind, then wind is a renewable energy source. Both wind and solar energy sources need to be able to be stored in order to work during times of the day when it not windy or sunny. How about a biomass power plant, where trees or some other plant are burned to make electricity? (Answer: Biomass is renewable because you can plant more trees to replace the ones you use for energy.)

Unfortunately most of our electricity in the U.S. comes from non-renewable energy sources. Non-renewable energy resources are used at a much faster rate than they can be created. Two examples are nuclear (Uranium) and coal. Nuclear power plants provide about 20% of U.S. electricity using uranium. Estimates for how many years there are left in the world's uranium reserves range from less than one hundred years to several hundred years. We have a limited amount of uranium which is why it is a non-renewable energy source.

Half of U.S. electricity comes from coal. The U.S. has some of the largest coal reserves in the world. We could continue providing electricity from our coal for the next 100-300 years, depending on how much our electricity use grows. Does this mean that coal is a renewable or non-renewable energy resource? (Answer: Coal is a non-renewable energy source because the amount of coal in the earth is also limited.)

Engineers learn about the different types of energy sources in order to figure out which type of energy is best to power a community. Renewable energy sources may sound better but the technology to use them is more expensive right now. Non-renewable energy sources, like nuclear and coal, are not as expensive, but they may pollute the environment and affect people's health. Today, we are going to act like power engineers and help the new community of Smallsburg decide on which type or energy source is best for them.


Before the Activity

With the Students

  1. Pass out the Powering Smallsburg Worksheet (keep a copy of the worksheet available for yourself as a reference).
  2. Have students write the name of their engineer in the first box on the sheet.
  3. Next, place Power Smallsburg Overhead 1 up for students to see. Discuss this overhead with the students. (Tell students that when selecting a power plant to make electricity, several things need to be considered besides whether the energy source is renewable or non-renewable.)
  4. Tell students that the decision for what type of power plant to use is often made by community leaders and power engineers. Discuss what they think is most important, providing inexpensive power that puts out emissions (pollution) that affect the environment and people's health but allows the community to buy other improvements, or focusing on the development of clean energy at the expense of other improvements? Perhaps the best choice is a mixture of the two. Let the students know that when they do the worksheet, s/he will decide.
  5. Next, use the following discussions (steps 6-8) to go through the worksheet with your students. (For older students, you can have them try the worksheet on their own first.)
  6. Have the students write in their answer to Question 1 on their worksheets.

(Tell students: Power plants are sized by the amount of electricity that they are expected to cover. For example, a mall may require 20 MW (MW means mega-watts, which is a measure of electrical power) for all the lights, air-conditioning, cash registers, escalators and etc. inside. So, the power plant that services the community must have at least a 20 MW capacity to service the mall. The same community may have a school needing 1 MW, a sports stadium uses 10 MW, a hospital 15 MW, and a few offices need 4 MW. Therefore, the power plant, or a combination of power plants, needs to provide a total of how many MW of power to the whole community?) (Answer: 50 MW, the sum of all needs listed above).

  1. Read the explanation provided and have the students answer questions 2-6 on their Powering Smallsburg Worksheet. (Tell students: The community of Smallsburg has about $250 million to spend. They need to provide power to the community, but they have other uses for that money as well, such as providing social services, making road improvements or building public parks. Can you think of other things a community might spend its money on? Your worksheet provides you with some power plant options and how much they cost.)
  2. Have the students think about what they would do with their leftover money and then answer question 7.
  3. Have a short discussion with the class. Ask the students what combination of power plants should the community leaders and the power engineers pick for Smallsburg?
  4. If time permits, have the student draw a picture of their community, including the power plants, the buildings, the community improvements, and the environment.


Troubleshooting Tips

If some students are having difficulty, have them work with other students.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Discussion Question: Solicit, integrate and summarize student responses. Ask students the name different sources of energy that we can use for electricity in our homes and schools.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Worksheet: Have the students complete the activity worksheet; review their answers to gauge their mastery of the subject.

Post-Activity Assessment

Presentation: Have students present their power plant choices for Smallsburg and describe why they chose the power plants that they did in the activity. Ideally there will be quite a range of community designs – some will focus on reducing emissions and use of renewable energies, while others will spend less on power production and have more to spend on development but with increased pollutant emissions.

Activity Discussion: Review and discuss the activity with the entire class. Ask the students to think about what changes they would make as the power engineer for the city if they had less money to spend. How about more money? Use the answers to gauge students' mastery of the subject.

Activity Extensions

Have students research a particular type of power plant. Specifically, students can research the type of plant in their area that fuels their home or school.

Have the students develop of list of renewable and non-renewable energy sources. Then, have the students do some research and rank the list in order of most expensive to least expensive. What are some requirements for each type of energy source to work?

Activity Scaling

For upper grades, have students complete the worksheet on their own. Then, have the students defend their choices in a journal entry or class discussion.

For lower grades, go through the worksheet scenario as a class. Also, you can simplify the problem by reducing the number of power plant options.


Canine, Craig. Natural Resources Defense Council, onearth, Fall 2005, "How to Clean Coal," accessed January 8, 2007. http://www.nrdc.org/onearth/05fal/coal1.asp

U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, Energy Kids' Page, accessed January 8, 2007. http://www.eia.doe.gov/kids/

U.S. Department of Energy, Fossil Energy, Clean Coal & Natural Gas Power Systems, "Clean Coal Technology & the President's Clean Coal Power Initiative," October 25, 2006. http://www.fossil.energy.gov/programs/powersystems/cleancoal/

U.S. Department of Energy, Fossil Energy, Clean Coal & Natural Gas Power Systems, "FutureGen - Tomorrow's Pollution-Free Power Plant," December 14, 2006, accessed January 8, 2007. http://www.fossil.energy.gov/programs/powersystems/futuregen/

Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Wikipedia – The Free Encyclopedia, "Coal," accessed January 8, 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal


Frank Burkholder; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Janet Yowell


© 2006 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: June 15, 2017