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By studying "'The Electric Project': The Minidoka Project and Powerplant" students have learned how the Bureau of Reclamation's Minidoka Project used electricity for irrigation purposes. They also learned how the Bureau came to provide electricity to project farms and small towns in the early 20th century, transforming the lives of the settlers. They have also discovered that the "Electric Project" is an example of how Reclamation's mission expanded from providing water for irrigation, to providing both water and power for farms and cities.

Activity 1: Centuries of Change: How Everyday Life Has Changed Due to Electricity.
Have your class study and contrast the ways everyday tasks were completed in the late 19th century, early 20th century, and today, using the technology available to them in each period. Students should ultimately consider the ways and extent to which access to electricity, and labor saving devices and conveniences, altered how Americans live.

First, have students keep a daily diary of their use of electricity. They should note each time they use an electrically operated item to make life more convenient or to complete a task (examples: use electric lights, make breakfast, or for entertainment). They should note the device and purpose of use.

Next, bring the class together to compile a list of their individual observations. After compiling the list, review the Minidoka Project lesson plan readings and other available materials. A book, available on the internet, that would be useful to understand late 19th century life is From Attic to Cellar or Housekeeping Made Easy, written by Elizabeth Holt and published in 1892.

Have students identify, using Holt, how daily activities and tasks were accomplished in the late 19th century. Using Minidoka Project readings, have students identify how those activities and tasks were accomplished by 1920. Then have students compare the list of activities and tasks they compiled to identify how these tasks were accomplished by the early 21st century. This might be accomplished as an individual homework assignment or in class as group assignments.

Then, in class discussion, compare and discuss change over the last 150 years. Ask your students to consider where we will be in another 100 years. Ask them to use what they have learned in this activity to reach those conclusions.

Activity 2: Public vs. Private Power
Reclamation and a private utility company, Idaho Power Company, worked together to help solve power shortages on the Minidoka Project in the early 1920s. Each benefited from the bargain. But this was not always the case. A national debate about public versus private power had begun early in the 20th century. The debate grew when Reclamation began planning the Boulder Canyon Project (Hoover Dam) in the 1920s. Progressives and other advocates of public power thought electricity should be treated as a necessary service, like water, generated and provided to consumers by non-profit federal, state, and municipal agencies. They also hoped competition between public and private energy providers might lead to lower rates. Others thought having the government involved in providing electricity was inherently inefficient, and some felt it sounded a lot like socialism. Some thought electricity was just another commodity, and so should be produced and sold by profit-making private companies. People owning or holding stock in private power companies feared they would lose business and profits. Small Bureau of Reclamation powerplants like at Minidoka caused little public controversy, because the electricity generated was primarily for project use, and sales were not large enough to threaten private utility markets. But Hoover Dam would produce huge amounts of power for commercial sale, competing with private enterprise. Congress approved construction of Hoover Dam only after long debate between public and private power advocates, both in Congress and in the press.

Ask each student to write a report comparing and contrasting the Minidoka Project with the Boulder Canyon Project. Have them describe the both arguments vocalized in the early 20th century that were for and against public utility projects. There are many resources online students can discover to help research that topic, like this page at PBS.org. They will find information about the location, approval date, purpose, size, planned generating capacity, states involved, and cities/towns served for the Minidoka Project in the readings. Students can find most of the same information on the Boulder Canyon Project (Hoover Dam) on websites listed in the Supplemental Resources section of this lesson. Ask the students to present their reports to the class. Finally, ask the whole class to discuss why they think reactions to the two projects were so different.

Activity 3: How do you get your electricity?
When you ask most people how they get their electricity, the answer is "I turn on the switch." Perhaps a better question would be "Where does it start?" Ask students to investigate the electric power system in their community. Does the money their parents pay for electricity go to a public utility or to a private company? Is water the source of power to generate electricity for their community? If not, what is and why? When was electricity first available in their area? What buildings, structures, or systems exist to produce the power and to deliver it to businesses, homes, and other users? Where are they? (Some may not be recognizable as power related facilities, or are so much taken for granted that no one notices them.) Who built them? Who checks them to be sure they are operating safely? Who is responsible for keeping them in good working condition?

Some of these power-related facilities may be impressive historic structures. Some may have been sources of great local pride when they were first created. Others may be strictly utilitarian structures or even ugly, but may still be important parts of the community's history. Have students work in groups to identify and research these facilities. Ask them to determine whether any of them are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. If they are, obtain copies of the National Register documentation to use as part of their research. Ask the groups to work together to create their choice of an exhibit, podcast, online brochure or tour, short documentary, article for the local newspaper or historical society newsletter, driving or walking tour, or other interpretive product. Select a day when the students can present their findings to the rest of the class, or even at a school assembly. Offer the interpretive materials to the local historical society, library, and/or chamber of commerce. If none of the facilities is officially recognized for its historic significance, the class may want to initiate the nomination process for obtaining local or state designation or for listing in the National Register.

Research may reveal that some structures have suffered from deferred maintenance. Have the class consider what dangers may exist if a power facility can no longer operate safely or efficiently. The class might want to consider taking action to call this potential problem to the attention of their local government.

 

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