Last week, two dozen teachers from Beijing looked up at large, domed buildings. A translator explained how, inside, the gas from sewage waste is collected and converted into energy. The finished product is clean drinking water.
They were touring Freedom Field Renewable Energy in Rockford, which specializes in commercialized energy solutions.
The not-for-profit provides educational and technical support to businesses and manufacturers, as well as community members and students.
Tour guide and Chief Innovator Chet Kolodziej explained some of the other technologies on site.
"We have an electrical grid," he said. "We have two different wind turbines, solar power, and we have battery storage. It's actually what they call a micro-grid. We also have heat micro-grid, where we have solar thermal [energy]. We capture engine waste."
The visit was part of Northern Illinois University's STEM Professional Development outreach program. STEM stands from science, technology, engineering and math.
Director of Outreach Patti Sievert says the trip aimed to guide instructors away from just teaching to the test.
"What we're helping the teachers with is helping them learn how to get the students to think on a higher level, how to solve problems, how to get creative," she said. "That’s something that they’re not used to."
But sustainable energy technology wasn't the only new experience for teachers on this trip, according to Sievert.
"None of them are from the rural area. The few that were not born in Beijing grew up in a large city," she said. "It's been kind of fun to expose them to clean air, blue skies, and stars!"
Tong Rui is a 5th grade math teacher. She said she looks forward to incorporating STEM projects into her own classroom.
"It is very different with my school," she said. "I think it is very interesting, the subject."
The trip, which also involved a tour of FermiLab, was the first of its kind. Sievert said the feedback has been positive and similar trips may be planned in the future.