Could a New Renewable Energy App Help Inspire Future Climate Crusaders?

Eva Wolfe could not see the flames, but she knew they were out there.

It was early September 2020, a hot end to a hot summer, and Wolfe and her husband were living in Oregon's backwoods. The state was experiencing its worst drought in 10 years. Trees went thirsty and died. Scrub brush crinkled into kindling. And pandemic lockdowns drove Oregonions into one of their few escapes: the woods.

Then, on Labor Day, the woods ignited. Blustery winds fueled five megafires and 12 others, which consumed a million acres in just a few days.

Out in the woods, Wolfe knew one of those fires was burning just over the nearby mountain ridge. She stayed up all night, hitting refresh on the one Facebook page that shared updates on the fire's progress. In the morning, the sun rose red, illuminating a Mars-colored world. Wolfe kept hitting refresh as she prepped her first lessons. School was starting soon. And Wolfe, who teaches high school environmental science, knew her students would have questions about what was happening to their home. She was right: "All the kids were like, 'Why is our state on fire?'"

 

Seeing Is Believing … in a Better Future

Climate change wreaks all kinds of insidious havoc.

Some impacts, like wildfires, are easy to see; others, like economic strain, asthma, or infectious disease, are less visible. Such an amorphous, multiheaded threat can be challenging to teach, if it is taught at all. Most teenagers get their climate change information (or disinformation) on social media. Each state gets to decide how much of their public school curriculum will be dedicated to climate change (and the amount varies widely). Plus, not only is the topic complex—spanning a vast world of causes and solutions, many of which cannot be fully understood without some basic science—but it can also be anxiety-provoking. More than half of young people today feel “very or extremely worried” about climate change. Gerunds and geometry do not cause the same existential angst.

When wildfires—or floods, superstorms, or pandemics—threaten your home, it is hard not to feel hopeless. Wolfe has often heard her students say: “Oh well. We’ll just move to Mars.”

And yet, recent studies suggest that focusing on solutions, action, and a sense of agency can help young people overcome climate anxiety. One of the most promising solutions is clean energy: If the world can switch from fossil fuels to clean energy sources, like solar, wind, geothermal, water, and more, we could dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Now, the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO) have created a tool to help students visualize these technological solutions.

Enter: Renewable Energy Discovery (REDi) Island.

On Feb. 1, 2024, NREL, WPTO, and IKM 3D released the long-anticipated REDi Island app, an educational virtual world powered entirely by renewable energy.

REDi Island is designed for students from high school and beyond (and eventually from kindergarten on up), educators (like Wolfe), or anyone curious about how we can build a more sustainable world powered by clean energy. Students can explore technologies and careers through waystations, videos, 3D visualizations, and more. And teachers can access curriculum resources and activities, like a scavenger hunt that encourages users to think like a fish.

Right now, REDi Island gets most of its energy from water power because, well, it is an island. These coastal communities live right beside powerful ocean waves, currents, and tides, and an energetic river, too. In the future, the app developers plan to add even more renewable energy for users to explore (although users can already find two nonwater-power technologies churning out clean energy).

For now, this water-powered world can teach all about how steady hydropower and up-and-coming marine energy could help the country build a 100% clean energy power system. REDi Island can also help students envision how they, too, can power this sustainable world by joining a vast range of water power careers.

"It's very cutting edge," said Wolfe, who helped beta-test the app and plans to use it in her classroom. "I like that it lets kids imagine how we could power our entire society with renewable energy because everyone's always telling us that's impossible."

Seeing is believing, as the adage says. But it is also what the research says about climate communication: Visuals and videos are not only better at conveying abstract, esoteric concepts; they are also more likely to spark an emotional response. And emotions push people to act.

In REDi Island, users can see how river currents power a farm, how waves help generate clean drinking water, how bobbing buoys warn ships to avoid a coral reef, and how hydropower keeps a city's lights on. They can watch educational videos on, say, "the wonder of wave gliders," spin a 3D replica to examine what a winch drum does, or slip under water to discover if any featured technology is shorter than LeBron James.

 

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