Tesla Town teaches students about electricity system

Wednesday, February 27, 2013 - 4:45am

From nuclear power plants to solar powered homes, TCIPG’s free new app for iPad or Android, Tesla Town, allows young students to explore and learn about different energy sources used for electricity production today.

“Most people don’t have a lot of information about where electricity comes from,” said Jana Sebestik, Assistant Director of STEM Curriculum Design for the Office for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education (MSTE) and co-creator of the app. “One of our goals is just to educate people about the various sources.”

The Trustworthy Cyber Infrastructure for the Power Grid (TCIPG), a multi-university center administered by Illinois' Information Trust Institute, worked with Sebestik and MSTE to create this interactive application. Tesla Town, named after Nikola Tesla, a Serbian-American engineer and inventor best known for his contributions to the alternating current electrical supply system, is aimed at teaching students in third through eighth grade about electricity generation and delivery.

The app includes realistic, interactive illustrations of how electricity is produced, such as burning coal to create steam or controlling water flow through a dam. Students are able to explore the town and learn about parts of the electricity generation and delivery system by tapping on the structures and reading about each energy type. Actual photos of generators and other parts of the electricity infrastructure are included to help students identify where these might be located in their own town.

“People see these structures in our cities, but they might not know what they are,” Sebestik said.

This app was designed to take advantage of the mobile tablet market and Sebestik hopes parents and students will use and learn from the app together.

“We can envision a parent and kid sitting together and doing this,” she said.

TCIPG, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, works to build a more reliable and secure smart grid infrastructure. The project places a large emphasis on education, and one piece of that is workforce development. Tesla Town is one way to open students’ eyes to power sources around them and to get them thinking about career opportunities in math, science and technology.

“We know kids don’t choose a career in fifth grade, but starting around that age, they start crossing careers off their list,” Sebestik said. “The longer we can keep the doors to science and technology open, the better chance we have to bring them into these important technical careers.”

Sebestik and her team put a lot of work into researching what would make an educational app fun for a young student. They looked at children’s books and made the application interactive, as most children seem to intuitively know to click and push on pictures when using apps.

“A lot of educational apps designed for kids tend to be like electronic flash cards. I don’t think that’s a particularly fun use of technology,” Sebestik said. “Tesla Town is something that’s fun to do and hopefully makes you want to come back. It has a little bit of mystery maybe. We really just wanted to try to take advantage of the interactivity and maybe to prompt some people to find out more. We want to convey a ‘learning is fun’ message.”

TCIPG demonstrated the app at Illinois’ Mobile Development Day in January, and will also demo it at the Public Engagement Symposium on Feb. 28. There will also be iPads available for visitors to try out the app at the University of Illinois Engineering Open House on March 8-9 in the Coordinated Science Laboratory.

Tesla Town has been downloaded over 2,000 times by users in 27 different countries since its release on October 29, 2012. It was also featured in February’s National Science Teachers Association publication, NSTA Reports, in a monthly feature titled Freebies for Science Teachers. Tesla Town is available to download for free from the iTunes App Store, the Google Play Store, or accessed online at  http://tcipg.mste.illinois.edu/teslatown.

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