Hands-on Activity: Blackout!

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

Silhouette of a dark city skyline.
What would it be like during a blackout in a large city?
copyright
Copyright © 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved.

Summary

Students read news reports and first-person accounts to imagine what it would be like to be in a blackout in a large city. They follow news reports as if the event were unfolding in real-time and keep weblogs or journals of their experience as they imagine it, taking on different roles of people who live in the city or commute there to work. They use their journal accounts to create a play or screenplay that depicts what the August 2003 blackout was like for the people in the U.S. and Canada who experienced it. Although this activity is geared towards fifth-grade and older students, it could be easily adapted for younger students.

Engineering Connection

One of the biggest concerns for power company engineers is making sure everyone gets electricity when they need it. Detailed regional grid maps of power plant locations and distribution systems throughout the U.S. show the real-time demand and load changes by buildings and equipment as their connections to power plants are turned on and off. Sometimes damaged power lines cause interruption in power or blackouts. The regional grid maps help to determine where the damaged occurred and develop alternative routings so that electricity continues to be delivered to power companies' customers.

Pre-Req Knowledge

A basic understanding of electrical energy (charge, voltage, current, resistance), and its pervasiveness in our way of life (lights, heat, safety, appliances, computers, medical equipment, transportation, entertainment).

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Use a full range of strategies to comprehend technical writing.
  • Write stories, letters and reports with greater detail and supporting material.
  • Choose vocabulary and figures of speech that communicate clearly.
  • Draft, revise, edit and proofread for a legible final copy.

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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.

  • Investigate and assess the influence of a specific technology on the individual, family, community, and environment. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Show that electricity in circuits requires a complete loop through which current can pass (Grade 4) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Describe weather conditions based on data collected using a variety of weather tools (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

  • paper and pencils
  • (optional but highly recommended) Internet access OR make copies of the Blackout! Reading & Assignment
  • (optional) video tape recorder

Introduction/Motivation

What would it be like to live without electricity? What would happen if an entire major metropolitan region was without electricity? That is exactly what happened during the August 2003 blackout in the northeastern U.S. and Canada (see Figure 1).

Two night images of the northeastern U.S. and Canada show a concentration of bright lights along the eastern seaboard, and much darkness in the same area in the second photo.
Figure 1. Satellite images before and after the big blackout of August 2003.
copyright
Copyright © NOAA http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories/s2015.htm

How would it feel if you were a commuter stranded in the city just as the rush hour was beginning? What would you do? What if you were stranded in a subway? Or, trapped in an elevator? Or, on a roller coaster? What if you lived in the city itself and had to make your way home through the streets and into your building in the dark and with elevators out of service? What if you were a shopkeeper concerned about looting? Or, a restaurant owner who had no power to keep food refrigerated or run cash registers, and suddenly had lots of hungry stranded customers? How would you keep medical equipment working for hospitalized people? What if you were a police officer or a fire fighter? How would you keep people calm and prevent crime as night fell? What if you were the mayor of the city? What information would you need to give the citizens to help keep them calm and safe?

Today, you will follow news reports of the event and imagine yourself playing a role in the unfolding drama.

Vocabulary/Definitions

blackout: Lack of illumination caused by an electrical power failure; the failure of electric power for a general region.

blog : (weblog) A personal website that provides updated headlines and news articles of other sites that are of interest to the user, also may include journal entries, commentaries and recommendations compiled by the user; a shared online journal at which people can post diary entries about their personal experiences and hobbies.

cascading blackout: A blackout that occurs when one power failure causes a system overload that leads to a second failure and a third and so on, affecting a wide region. (As happened in the August 2003 blackout.)

power grid: A system of high-tension cables by which electrical power is distributed throughout a region.

real time: 1) The time that it takes a process to occur; information is updated in real time, 2) (computer science) The time it takes for a process under computer control to occur.

Procedure

Before the Activity

  • This is both an individual and class activity.
  • Make the Internet available for student information gathering, make copies of the attached Blackout! Reading & Assignment, or gather photocopies of newspaper and magazine articles about the August 2003 blackout. Students follow the news reports of the event and imagine themselves playing a role in the unfolding drama.

With the Students

In this activity, you will gather information about the blackout that occurred in August 2003 in the northeastern U.S. and Canada. You will take on one of the following roles (or another that you might imagine) and record events in a blog or journal, as if they were unfolding in real time:

  • stockbroker, who works in the city and lives in the suburbs
  • shopkeeper
  • restaurant owner
  • father or mother, whose child is at an after school activity when the blackout occurs
  • nurse, caring for patients in a hospital
  • police officer
  • firefighter
  • news broadcaster, who lives in the city (find out how Diane Sawyer got home during the blackout)
  • mayor of New York City
  • commuter, stranded in the subway
  • young woman or man, on the roller coaster at Coney Island with boy/girlfriend
  • pregnant woman, caught on an elevator

(Internet only) If your class does not have classroom weblog (blog), see this New York Times article for ideas: (free registration required to access this news article) http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/25/technology/q-a-your-world-online-setting-up-a-weblog.html. The class will combine these accounts to weave together a story of the blackout to present in the form of a play or screenplay (script for a movie) that you video tape.

A photograph shows the sparkling city lights in skyscrapers and bridge.
copyright
Copyright © 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved.

Observing

To get yourself into the scene, read as much as you can about the August 2003 blackout. Start with the news articles listed in References section, or find others on the Internet. Don't limit yourself to those articles, however. Learn as much as you can by doing your own research, just as any good playwright, director or actor does.

To make sure the events of your drama follow a logical progression, use newspaper accounts to work out a timeline from the moment the power goes out in New York City until it is restored.

Thinking

As you do your research, think about these questions:

  1. Besides New York City, what other major cities were affected? (Answers: Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Toronto and Ottawa, Canada.)
  2. Besides the power outage itself, what other concern would New York citizens be expected to have? (Possible answer: Terrorism) What did the mayor do to address the citizens' concerns? (Answer: The possibility of a terrorist attack was dismissed 20 minutes into the blackout.)
  3. Why was such a large area affected? What is a cascading blackout? How many power stations went offline? (Answer: We will learn more about the power grid in another Energy unit [Lesson 4] literacy activity, but the concept of an interconnected power grid should be introduced briefly here. See that activity, The Grid, for background on the power grid.)
  4. While the electricity was out, computers in the area of the blackout did not work, of course, but access to the Internet was slowed in areas not directly affected by the blackout. Why was that the case? (Answer: Servers in the area of the blackout were affected and could not respond to requests to view pages. The Internet itself is an interconnected grid, which is why it, too, is vulnerable to terrorism.)
  5. What were some early theories advanced for why the blackout happened? (Answers: Lightning strike, computer virus and terrorism were all suggested and ruled out quickly.)
  6. What was the real reason for the blackout? (Answer: A government task force found no one cause for the cascading power outage. Some point to a series of transmission line and large power plant failures in the Midwest in the hours before the outage. Contributing factors include process and communication failures, human error, overall fragility of our electricity infrastructure system, and lack of power plant capacity.)

Writing

You can structure your play in a couple of different ways. It can have an episodic structure, in which one scene simply follows another with no real connection between scenes. Or you can have a unified structure, perhaps built around a central character who plays a role in every scene and moves the action along, or with a central theme that unites the action, or a central motif, an image that suggests meaning without stating it directly.

A police officer might be a good central character because a police officer could conceivably play a role in many different scenes and logically interact with many other different characters. A central motif might be an object that is passed from character to character in a drama, like a cell phone that represents communication or a bicycle that represents transportation. A central theme might be "resourcefulness" or the different ways people react emotionally to having their normal routine disrupted. A good way to unify your drama might be to demonstrate "random acts of kindness" performed by all the characters in individual ways.

See the References section for resources with tips on writing skits, plays and screenplays.

Attachments

Troubleshooting Tips

Since Internet links to news articles can quickly become outdated, do your own keyword search for current articles by entering one or more terms (blackout, power outage, August 2003, northeast power outage) at Google under the "News" tab.

As an alternate class activity, assign each student a different role of all the types of people who might find themselves in a blackout. Have them write a one-page essay expressing their point-of-view and opinions of the blackout. Conclude by having each student read their story to the entire class.

Assessment

Pre-Activity Assessment

Call-Out Questions: Use call-out questions to reinforce basic concepts as they are introduced during the Observing activity.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Call-Out Questions: During the Thinking discussion, test students' understanding of the events, grasp of the timeline and details that make their play interesting.

Post-Activity Assessment

Writing/Performance: The students' journal and play demonstrate their understanding of the concepts.

Activity Extensions

Do some historical research by comparing the 2003 blackout with the 1965 blackout. See the Blackout History Project,http://blackout.gmu.edu/. html. Also see a CNN.com story, Major Power Outage Hits New York, Other Large Cities, August 14, 2003, http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/08/14/power.outage/index.html. At the end of the article, read a comparison of three previous blackouts, including the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965. Read Central Maine Power's story on the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965, including a letter from President Lyndon B. Johnson, http://www.cmpco.com/YourHome/default.html.

Look at the before and after satellite images of the August 2003 Blackout (see Figure 1). The light is obviously considerably less in the "after" photo, but there is still some light. Investigate why. Why is the blackout not total in the affected areas? (Answer: Some businesses and hospitals have backup systems or distributed energy [DE] systems and generate their own power. For more about DE, see the Windmill of Your Mind - Distributed Energy Goes to School literacy activity in Energy unit, Lesson 7.)

Activity Scaling

Depending on ability level and available time, students can record events in their blogs or journals from a character's point-of-view or they can write a simple skit or more complex play or screenplay.

References

Blackout Confusion, Learning Activity. Aired September 5, 2003. Cable News Network Student News, Time Warner Company. Accessed September 28, 2005. http://www.cnn.com/2003/fyi/news/09/04/learning.blackout.investigation/

Blackout Was Preventable, Probe Finds. Published May 18, 2003. Cable News Network, Time Warner Company. Accessed September 28, 2005. http://www.cnn.com/2004/US/04/05/blackout.report/index.html

Dictionary.com. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. Accessed September 28, 2005. (Source of some vocabulary definitions, with some adaptation.) http://www.dictionary.com/

Dorf, John. Playwriting 101. The Writer's Computer Store. Accessed September 28, 2005. (Useful for teacher background) http://www.playwriting101.com/

Guides to Skits and Plays for Kids. LookSmart Ltd. Accessed September 28, 2005. (Highly recommended. A list of excellent links. Age appropriate.)http://search.looksmart.com/p/browse/us1/us317837/us317922/us10078321/us10139603/us10139667/

Hampton, Aubrey. How to Write a Play: A Crash Course for Students. Updated 2000. Young Dramatists Project 2004, The Gorilla Theatre. Accessed September 28, 2005. (Aimed at 14-18 year olds, but very useful for background and can be adapted for younger ages) http://www.orrt.org/links/genrelinks.html

Hogan, Jenny. Blackout Gave Cities a Breath of Fresh Air. Published May 29, 2004. New Scientist Print Edition, Reed Business Information Ltd. Accessed September 28, 2005. http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99995038

In the Classroom, Web Blogs Are the New Bulletin Board. Published August 19, 2004. New York Times on the Web, The New York Times Company. Accessed September 28, 2005. (free registration required to access this news article) http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/19/technology/circuits/19blog.html?th

Major Power Outage Hits New York, Other Large Cities. Published August 14, 2003. Cable News Network, Time Warner Company. Accessed September 28, 2005. http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/08/14/power.outage/index.html

Movable Type Publishing Platform. Accessed September 28, 2005. http://www.movabletype.org/

Power Returns to Most Areas Hit by Blackout: U.S.-Canadian Task Force Charged with Investigating Outage. Published August 15, 2004. Cable News Network, Time Warner Company. Accessed September 28, 2005. (Highly recommended. Includes interactive features.) http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/08/15/power.outage/index.html

Schneider, Bill. The Big Blackout Pulls New Yorkers Together. Published August 15, 2003. Cable News Network, Time Warner Company. Accessed September 28, 2005. http://www.cnn.com/2003/ALLPOLITICS/08/15/ip.pol.opinion.blackout.ny/index.html

tBlog! Accessed September 28, 2005. http://www.tblog.com/

Contributors

Jane Evenson; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise W. Carlson

Copyright

© 2005 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

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

Acknowledgements

The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants 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

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