How does a bulb light?

In this unit, students investigate an everyday phenomenon: electric light turning on. Students observe two strings of LED lights turn on. One is battery powered and one is powered by plugging into the wall outlet. Students record their observations and “wonderings”. The class develops a Driving Question Board (DQB), that helps generate ideas for investigations. Their questions drive the flow of the unit. Students plan and carry out their own investigations to answer these questions, which includes investigating electricity production and delivery, considering when and how to conserve, and recent and future changes in the energy system including changes in transportation energy demands. The unit culminates in a family action plan that the students develop and a plan for a clean energy community information event.

About This Unit

This energy unit has been created by the Office for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education (MSTE) in collaboration with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Energy with support from the U.S. Dept. of Energy State Energy Program. This unit is aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and is designed to integrate environmental education into the science curriculum. It has been designed to develop critical thinking skills, and to encourage students to think constructively about energy and environmental issues.

Pathway Overview

The Pathway Overview shows the conceptual and coherent flow of the entire unit.

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ask Ask
observe Discover
image/svg+xml Learn

Part 1: Production

How does a bulb light?

What happens when we turn on a light?
Electricity becomes light energy.
Where do we get

How is electricity produced?
Generators use magnetism and motion to create electricity.

Batteries store energy in chemical form.

Photovoltaic (PV) cells, or solar cells produce electricity directly from light.
How do generators work?

Which energy sources power generators?
A generator turns a magnet near a wire coil to create a flow of electrons.

Generators can be powered by steam, wind, or moving water.

We can power a small generator.
What are advantages and disadvantages of various power sources?
Effects on the landscape

Intermittent production

CO2 emissions

Nuclear waste
How does energy use affect the environment?
Air quality

Climate change

Use of non-renewable resources
What is clean energy?

What is renewable energy?
Energy sources that produce little or no greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide emissions) are often called clean energy.

Renewable energy sources are constantly replenished.

Part 2: Delivery

How is electricity delivered?
The power grid is the system of generators, transmission lines, power poles, substations and users of electricity.
What is distributed generation?
Distributed generation refers to energy produced near where it is used.
What is net metering?
Net metering allows a grid connected electricity customer and producer to use a meter that can record power flows back into the grid as a credit.
What is the smart grid?
The term "smart grid" refers to adding digital technology for two-way communication between a utility and its customers.

Smart grid sensors add efficiency and reliability.

Part 3: Efficiency

How can the smart grid help us use electricity wisely?
Save money

Reduce pollution

Mitigate climate change
How do we use energy?

What are our energy choices?
Electricity: Lighting/Electronics/Appliances

Natural Gas: Cooking/Heating

Oil: Transportation
How can we be active participants in the energy system?
Consider time of use pricing

Produce power and send it to the grid

Use less energy and use it more efficiently

Energy star/LED lighting


Part 4: Changes

How is the energy system changing?
More solar and wind both small and large scale

Using solar energy to heat water for steam

Neighborhood or community micro-grid

Large scale storage
Which energy uses can utilize clean energy sources?
Electricity is clean when it is produced using wind, solar, hydro and geothermal sources.

Electricity can be used more for transportation and heating.
How can electric vehicles be part of the system?
Decreased reliance on fossil fuels

EV to grid

Why would we want to electrify everything?

Can we replace fossil fuel powered transportation and heating with electric power?
We are using more clean energy sources to produce electricity.

Electric transportation and electric heat can help reduce or eliminate fossil fuel use.

Battery powered lawn mowers.

Teacher Guide

This document details the flow of lessons from the teacher perspective, including lab set-up and safety instructions, suggestions for discussion prompts, and examples of student work to assist in planning. Individual lessons from the Pathway document are included for reference, followed by detailed learning plans.

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Material & Supply List

A number of consumable and non-consumable materials and supplies are used during investigations. Some additional, optional equipment can enhance the investigations if available.

View material & supply list

Check Out Energy Kits from the Library

IEPA Energy Kits containing the necessary non-consumable materials for this curriculum are available for checkout at libraries in the Illinois Library System.

Circuit Kit

Hydropower Kit


Student Activity Sheets

Lessons in the Teacher Guide reference specific activity sheets; you can find links to these sheets below.

View activity sheets

Additional Resources

The following collections of resources may be helpful to augment this Energy unit:

Teacher resources

Student energy readings

Energy photos and images