Grandparents University: Energy education that spans generations

Every summer, more than a thousand UW–Madison alumni return to campus accompanied by their grandchildren to take part in Grandparents University, an intergenerational learning experience organized by the Wisconsin Alumni Association. This year, two classes of Wisconsin grandparents and grandchildren became energy experts right here at the Wisconsin Energy Institute. Attendees designed and built their own wind turbines, experimented with fermentation, toured labs, and learned what energy means to one another­—and how that has changed over the years.

We sat down with a few participants to talk through generational shifts in perceptions of energy. “What did your parents teach you about energy?”, “What did you teach my parents?”, “How have you seen energy use change?”, and “What are your hopes for my generation?” were all questions posed by grandchildren seeking words of wisdom. 

From these conversations, we learned how the systems that keep the lights on can help thread a family history, and how evolved perceptions of these systems can point to the future of clean energy. 

grandparents university
Madeline O'Callaghan and Susanna Mooney, of Madison, WI pose after completing a "sources of energy" scavenger hunt among the bioenergy demonstration gardens in front of the Wisconsin Energy Institute on the UW–Madison campus. Hannah Harms

Growing up with energy and electricity

Grandparents agreed that when they were young, energy was never really discussed at home or at school. The older generation explained that conversations about electricity were characterized in terms of how much it cost, so the only question of energy conservation was whether or not a family could afford to waste it.

Voices in this clip (in order):
Merrilee Riley, Plymouth, MN
Reese Heinrich, Muskego, WI with Roger Zimmerman, Madison, WI
Lan Wadell, Marshall, WI with Trent Waddell from Appleton, WI

testing wind turbine
Eleanor Heling, from Verona, WI, and her grandparents, Kathryn and Bruce, from Madison, WI, test out model wind turbine blades they built with recycled cardboard. Chelsea Mamott

Renewable energy by a different name

When asked about what renewable energy implied to them, the older generation zeroed in on technologies that allow sources such as wind and solar to be more viable. Communities applied some sources, like wind, just not in the same way or to the same degree as they do today. Grandparents cited the advancement of technology as the catalysis for renewable energy in the terms that we think of today, but also as the limiting factor in their perception of its feasibility.

Voices in this clip (in order):
Bruce Heling, Madison, WI
Merrilee Riley
Trent Waddell, Appleton, WI
Bruce Heling

Solar art
Samuel Schilder, from Germantown, WI and his grandmother, Connie, from Ripon, WI shine a UV flashlight onto their solar art print of plants from bioenergy demonstration gardens outside of the WEI building on University Ave. Chelsea Mamott

Changing climate, changing values

Through these conversations, the older generation said they found it difficult to pinpoint exactly when the human impacts of fossil fuel use first became part of the cultural conversation. Most grandparents agreed that it wasn't often discussed amongst their families when they were young. As extreme weather events have become more common, however, they reported coming to a more rounded understanding of the effects of climate change on their lives.

Voices in this clip (in order):
Trent Waddell
Roger Zimmerman
Trent Waddell
Roger Zimmerman

building wind turbine
James Bresette and his grandmother Barbara Stanley, from Stillwater, MN and Middleton, WI respectively, set the angle of their model wind turbine blades with a pitch protractor to try to lift as many washers as possible. Chelsea Mamott

Building bridges

Reflecting on their childhood, grandparents were encouraged by their young family members to examine just how much cultural perceptions of energy have changed. Impressed by their grandchildren’s awareness of energy issues, the older generation was united by its hope for the next generation. Grandparents agreed that although there is much work to be done, they had no doubts that their grandchildren would rise to the occasion with the wisdom of the past on their side.

Voices in this clip (in order):
Bruce Heling
Kathryn Heling
Trent Waddell
Olive Riley, Plymouth, MN with Merrilee Riley

Later, Bresette and Stanley decide which flowers to add to their own solar art prints. Hannah Harms

Grandparents University is sponsored by the Wisconsin Foundation Alumni Association. More information regarding this program is available here. Special thanks goes out to the UW–Madison Oral History Program, who provided audio recording equipment for these multigenerational interviews. Full audio will be archived soon.