Mr. E opens with a question: “Who has heard of solar energy before?”
A dozen hands shoot up. In a room full of excited, squirming fifth graders at Hitchcock Elementary School in Omaha, everyone wants to answer.
Mr. E nods approvingly. “So, the vast majority of you. Some of you were probably guilted into raising your hands, but that’s OK. I work for OPPD. It stands for Omaha Public Power District. Not the most creative name in the world. What does OPPD do?”
“They give you power!”
Mr. E feigns ignorance. “They give me power, or you power?”
“Uhh, they give me power.”
“No!” the boy says, exasperated. “Everyone!”
Welcome to OPPD’s Energy Education Program with “Mr. E,” a.k.a. Eric BenSalah. BenSalah, an OPPD energy consultant, visits local schools in his trademark OPPD orange blazer to teach students about energy. His solar presentations are a mix of dad jokes, space trivia, instructions on how to make a solar oven out of a pizza box, and photos of his rescue dogs, Flapjack and Waffles.
Along the way, students learn a little about how OPPD generates electricity and the benefits and tradeoffs of energy sources. In a variety of lessons tailored to different age groups, BenSalah discusses assorted types of generation – coal, solar, wind, natural gas – and how everyone can use energy more efficiently.
BenSalah, a former HVAC technician who works for OPPD in Product Development and Marketing, created the “Mr. E” persona as part of the utility’s efforts to make science and energy more relatable and entice young people into STEM careers that will benefit Nebraska.
In elementary schools, BenSalah shares photos of his dogs lounging in front of a window to explain how passive solar can warm a home.
“Passive solar means I’m allowing the sun to heat my house,” he says. “That’s all free of charge. The sun doesn’t send us a bill.”
From there, the conversation shifts to solar panels and the best places in the United States to use them (Nebraska is great for about four months a year. New Mexico is better year-round.). Mr. E outlines the benefits of solar (renewable, sustainable) but doesn’t gloss over the negatives (not very efficient right now, expensive to install with current technology).
Mr. E continues his energy education lessons, explaining how the sun generates energy with nuclear fusion – “More pressure than this entire school building is putting on any one square inch of ground” – and how that energy lingers in the sun for 100,000 years before it escapes for a 93-million-mile journey to Earth.
Another interesting tidbit: Outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, the sun is white. Why? Because it absorbs all colors of the spectrum, Mr. E explains. The Earth’s atmosphere scatters blue light more efficiently than red light, which is why the sun appears yellow, orange, sometimes red.
Next, Mr. E pivots to the hands-on lesson for the day: making a simple solar oven out of a pizza box, black construction paper, tinfoil and a clear plastic sheet. In Africa, similar ovens have helped feed thousands who once relied on smoky, primitive fires that contribute to deforestation and respiratory diseases.
The kids set to work. Mr. E walks them through each step and quizzes them along the way. Why use black paper? (It retains heat better). What does the tinfoil do? (Reflects sunlight into the box). As the students finish and decorate their boxes, Mr. E asks what they plan to cook.
“Batteries!” (There’s one in every class).
As the period nears an end, Mr. E returns to a question that he teased at the beginning of class: Why is he called Mr. E?
The kids volunteer some guesses.
Mr. E shakes his head. “Say it fast.”
“Mystery!” BenSalah grins. “It’s a mystery!”
He gets eye rolls and groans from the kids. Another dad joke.
Subscribe and receive updates on the latest news and postings!