150-Ton Coal Hauler Inspires Teachers

BLACKSBURG, Va., Aug. 4, 2003 – Elementary, middle, and high school educators learned firsthand where electricity comes from, in Virginia Tech's "Coal to Electricity" energy education program. Now in its seventh year, the summer series examines extraction and transportation of coal, electricity generation and transmission, environmental issues, energy economics, and environmental topics such as land reclamation.

Seventeen science teachers from around the Commonwealth were selected to attend the free, two-week program held July 13-25. Jointly sponsored by Virginia Tech and corporate and governmental agencies, teachers develop lesson plans for their classes that address the energy standards included in the Virginia Standards of Learning in science.

But this educational series isn't just a lecture course. While visiting a surface mine in Wise County, they also learned how to drive a two-story high, 150-ton coal hauler.

"For the teachers, it's like looking up at the Empire State Building," says Mary Quillen, program founder and director, "The thought of handling a million-dollar piece of equipment is a little intimidating at first but once teachers climb inside, they discover they can drive with the best."

Quillen began implementing an early version of the program in Wise County, the largest coal producing area in Virginia, where she was a public school teacher for many years. She discovered that school children from this historic mining community had little understanding of how coal became electricity. When she arrived at Virginia Tech in 1996, she enlisted their support as well as corporate sponsorships. She now runs the only graduate program of its kind in the nation for science teachers about how coal is mined and used to generate electricity.

Academic backing for the program comes from the department of Teaching and Learning at Virginia Tech. John Burton, department chair, says he was an early supporter of Quillen's ideas because "far too many people simply don't understand where electricity comes from. Many people have a negative opinion about coal mining even though coal is used to produce over 50 percent of our electricity and is of great economic importance in our region."

Quillen adds, "I became inspired to teach this series when I realized many people thought that electricity just came from the wall. Plus, children of miners had no idea what their parents did in the mines, or how important their labors were in providing that electricity from the wall."