University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

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Energy & U—new location & Theatre Department collaborative

Since its conception nine years ago, the University of Minnesota’s Energy and U has continued to grow in popularity, now attracting more than 10,000 students to its shows annually. 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.

A new collaborative partnership with the University’s Department of Theatre Arts & Dance is opening the door to additional possibilities for the show, including a higher level of professionalism and space for more students to attend. This May, Energy and U is moving 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. Energy and U has three shows per day for five days in January and May. In addition, theatre students, faculty, and staff members will help the Energy and U professors polish their presentations, and will provide professional-level sound, lighting, and music support. There will also be 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 and William Healey, Rarig Center’s design/tech coordinator, are making 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.

Since this collaboration is in its beginning stages, this May, the Energy and U show will primarily focus on some initial enhancements to the current show, and learning how to best take advantage of the space and collaboration to maximize the impact on students in the future. What won’t change is getting elementary students excited about science and engineering. It will continue 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.

The May presenters are professors David Blank, Renee Frontiera, Christy Haynes, Marc Hillmyer, and Aaron Massari from the Department of Chemistry, and Cari Dutcher from Mechanical Engineering. The demonstrations are created and coordinated by Joe Franek, Department of Chemistry lecture demonstration director.

“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. This outreach includes invitations to all public, private and parochial elementary and middle schools, 3rd grade through 6th grade, in the seven country metro area. Priority is given to schools with underrepresented populations of students. For example, in January, the average percentage of all the schools attending was 56 percent in both categories. Demand for the show is high and continues to increase rapidly. In addition to the 10,000 students that are able to be accommodated at the current performances, the waiting list contained another 6,000 students.

Generous support from the University of Minnesota Materials Research Science and Engineering Center and the Center for Sustainable Polymers, Medtronic, and Schlumberger offset bus transportation costs for participating schools. Most schools would not be able to attend without this support.

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 to enhance our presentations and communications efforts. By moving, 2,000 additional students will be 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.”