Turning on ideas

By Marion Blackburn

Grants from power-suppliers in Eastern North Carolina are helping students learn first-hand about wildlife, fractions, art and the environment.

The grants, known as Bright Ideas awards, are given each year to teachers throughout the region by the nonprofit Electric Cooperatives of Eastern North Carolina that provide power to small towns and communities in 26 largely rural counties.

“There not large grants, but these are things that teachers would pay out of their own pockets,” says Heidi Smith, chair of marketing for organization, an umbrella group that includes seven cooperatives that serve customers from Elizabeth City to Morehead City and west to I-95 and Halifax.

“These are realistic, attainable grants for teachers,” Smith says. “I’m always excited to see their projects.”

The Bright Ideas program in Eastern North Carolina is part of a statewide program of the North Carolina Electric Membership Corporation, also know as Touchstone Energy.

In all, the state’s 27 electric cooperatives provide power to about 2 million people in 93 counties.

Since the Bright Ideas program began in 1994, more than $4.5 million has gone to teachers across the state to fund about 4,000 projects reaching 800,000 students.

Local power suppliers in the Eastern North Carolina Electric Cooperative were expected to award about $50,000 in November.

That includes grants made through the Tideland Electric Membership Corporation, located in Pantego, where Smith is based.

“Because we are locally owned and operated, it’s very important to be an integral part of the community,“ says Bill Ward, director of community relations for the Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative, another local nonprofit power supplier. “Our employees live here, work here and have children in schools here, so we feel it’s important to give back.”

Ward says the grant proposals are small, but meaningful for students and teachers.

One of his recent favorites was “Boots for Beaches” proposed by a biology teacher.

“The teacher hoped to get 20 pairs of climbing boots so the kids could go into the salt marshes and learn about their surroundings,” Ward says. “Now classes can use them every year.”

Smith agrees that while the grants are modest — no more than $2,000 — they fund imaginative ventures that are a boost for teachers as well as students.

One grant allowed students to learn about owls in their natural setting by studying the pellets they left in the woods, she says.

“The examined them to better understand the owls’ habitat, the food chain and the environment that supports them,” Smith says.

Other projects included cooking demonstrations to teach fractions, butterfly gardens, weather stations and even water-quality testing.

Funding for Bright Ideas grants in eastern North Carolina comes, in part, from Operation Roundup, which allows energy customers in some areas to round their payment to the next dollar and donate the change to charitable projects funded by their cooperatives.

“Cooperatives are locally owned and controlled,” Smith says. “Since we’re at the local level we know the needs and know how the money should be spent. We’re right here.”

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