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Energy and U continues to grow with theatre collaborative

More than 6,400 students in 3rd through 6th grades are attending the popular Energy and U shows. Two shows a day will be conducted May 11-13, and May 16-20. Two public evening shows, May 18-19, are sold out. Since its conception 10 years ago, the University of Minnesota’s Energy and U show has grown in popularity. It has also continued to evolve while remaining centered on its messages about energy, and its primary purpose of getting elementary students excited about science and engineering.

Growing in popularity

Since its conception 10 years ago, the University of Minnesota’s Energy and U show has grown in popularity. It has continued to evolve while remaining centered on its messages about energy, and its primary purpose of getting elementary students excited about science and engineering. Twice a year, it conducts shows geared toward students in 3rd through 6th grade, and invitations are sent to all public, private and parochial schools in the seven-county metro area. Demand for the show is high and continues to grow with thousands of students on the waiting list each year.

Opening the door to possibilities

A collaborative partnership with the university’s Department of Theatre Arts & Dance has opened the door to additional possibilities for the show, including a higher level of professionalism and space for more students to attend. Last May, Energy and U moved to the Whiting Proscenium Theatre at the Rarig Center, which can accommodate 400 students per show, about 100 more than what were able to see the show in the Smith Hall auditorium. In addition, theatre students, faculty, and staff members are helping the Energy and U professors polish their presentations, and are providing professional-level sound, lighting, and music support. The shows now include multiple large display screens to enhance visibility of the graphics used in the presentation.

“We are excited about the opportunities this collaborative offers us,” said Chemistry Professor David Blank, Energy and U director. He credits Marcus Dilliard, Department of Theatre Arts & Dance chair, for his enthusiastic response to the show and his vision for enhanced scientific communications by combining the talents of the scientist presenters and theater professionals. Dillard, William Healey, Rarig Center’s design/tech coordinator, and Anthony Courtright, manager, made it possible for Energy and U to have access to a theater team with expertise in stage management, staging, and sound and visual technical assistance.

What hasn't change is getting elementary students excited about science and engineering. Energy and U continues to focus on teaching students about the First Law of Thermodynamics, the scale of world energy use, and the significant energy challenges. The high-energy show has numerous explosions and demonstrations that often involve student volunteers from the audience, flames, and rock music that gets everyone dancing.

Exciting young people about science

“One of our primary goals, exciting the students about the idea of going to college and pursing a career in science and engineering, is a top priority,” said Blank.

To reach this goal, outreach to schools with underserved populations of students is a priority, including those with high percentages of students of color and students receiving free or reduced-priced lunch, which is an indicator of poverty. Last year, the average percentage of all the schools attending was 56 percent in both categories. Past financial support from a number of organizations has allowed  Energy and U reimburse schools for the cost of busing to the University, overcoming a financial barrier that can prevent many schools from participating.

Supporters provide needed funding

Support for the show comes from the generous support of the National Science Foundation through the University of Minnesota Materials Research Science and Engineering Center and the Center for Sustainable Polymers, from corporate sponsorship including  Medtronic and Schlumberger, and from the University of Minnesota through the departments of Chemistry, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, Theatre Arts and Dance, and the College of Science & Engineering. Individuals or industries interested in partnering in this high impact outreach activity for the school children of Minnesota may contact David Blank at, or 612-624-0571.

Making a difference

The show’s messages and the outreach are making a difference. “Thank you so much for the awesome opportunity to attend the Energy and U event today. My kids loved it,” wrote one third grade teacher after a show. “I teach at a very high needs school on the west side of Saint Paul, and many of my students do not know people other than their teachers who have been to college. On the way there, one of my 3rd grade students asked, ‘Why are we going to a university? This isn’t for us. I’m not going to go to college.’ On the way out, she said, ‘I want to be a chemist when I grow up!’ Showing the kids that science has fun, real world applications is the first step in inspiring them. I am so happy that your team planted the seed that she should strive to work hard and do something great in her life.”

Energy and U continues to expand, said Blank. “We are excited about this opportunity to team with the Theatre Arts and Dance Department. By moving, more students are able to see the show annually. But, more importantly, by working with the professionals in the theater department, we are taking this to the next level of engagement with those students, and showing them the possibilities that exist with the sciences and the arts.”

Top right photo: Joe Franek, who creates the Energy and U demonstrations, sets a gummy bear on fire to demonstrate how our bodies convert food into energy. Home page photo: Energy and U Director and Co-creator David Blank explains that a joule is the unit of measurement for energy.