Build a Wave Energy Device

Teachers: Your Students Can Build Their Very Own Wave Energy Converter in Your Classroom! Sea Grant curriculum introduces students to wave energy with hands-on activities

By Nancy Steinberg

Wave energy developers always build small-scale versions of their devices to test in the lab before scaling up to the full-size converters they will install and test in the ocean. But no wave energy company has built one as small as the one Ruby Moon is showing me. This one, less than a foot long including its mooring, probably couldn’t power a blender, but its significance is much greater than its size.


Moon is the Marine Renewable Energy Program Associate with Oregon Sea Grant Extension. Her very first project in that position was to develop a wave energy curriculum built around construction of this very simple miniature wave energy converter that can actually produce a tiny voltage.

The diminutive device was the brainchild of Bill Hanshumaker, Chief Scientist at the Oregon State University Hatfield Marine Science Center Visitor Center, and Alan Perrill, a volunteer docent at the HMSC VC. It was Moon’s job to pull together their notes on the device’s construction with background on marine renewable energy into a user-friendly and attractive guide for teachers.

"If you’re not used to teaching these kinds of topics, it can be intimidating," Moon acknowledges. "I laid out the construction of the device in simple steps so teachers could teach it with confidence and ease."

The resulting Wave Energy Handbook provides the instructions to build the tiny device, a point absorbing type of wave energy converter, using materials like a fishing bobber, fishing line, copper wire, rare earth magnets, and a suction cup. (Moon made her prototype device at home, and, not having any fishing line around, used dental floss. The device worked like a charm.) "Almost all of the materials you need can be purchased at a hardware store or Wal-Mart," Moon says.

Preview of PDFEssentially, a plastic test tube is wrapped with coils of copper wire. A float (the fishing bobber) suspends a rare earth magnet which bobs up and down within the coil, generating electricity. Ends of the copper wire are connected to a voltmeter to measure energy output. The whole device can be tested in a makeshift wave tank; instructions for assembling one from a plastic storage tote and some wooden dowels are included in the handbook.

The Wave Energy Handbook includes the instructions, a materials list, and extensive ideas for taking the lesson beyond simple construction. "The guide includes a list of variables that affect voltage so students can hold all of them constant except for one and experiment to find out how to get the best voltage output," Moon explains.

The project and associated curriculum materials are aimed at middle school and high school students.

The guide also includes theoretical background on wave energy, diagrams and photos of different types of wave energy devices, information about local wave energy development, and lists of resources for teachers and students. It also lists the relevant science standards that the project fulfills.

Moon points out that the guide includes ideas for how to extend work in the classroom beyond building the device, to include lessons on cost-benefit analyses and discussions of the potential social effectss of wave energy.

To test out the handbook and introduce it to teachers, Moon, Hanshumaker, and Perrill, along with Oregon Sea Grant, presented a workshop for 25 teachers from throughout Oregon. Held at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, the workshop offered the teachers the opportunity to try out building the device and then test it in the wave tank at HMSC.

"All the teachers got their devices to work," Moon reports, "but we did have to do some problem-solving." The teachers were offered a range of materials and needed to figure out the best approach to generating voltage, just as Moon hopes their students will do in the classroom.

"One teacher used a larger-gauge wire, and spaced the coils far apart, so when it didn’t produce a large charge, he had to trouble-shoot," she says.

Photo of kids activity 1   Photo of kids activity 2
Above: High schoolers at 24 June 2014 "Gear Up" event practice building a model wave energy converter, assisted by NNMREC staff and Ruby Moon of Oregon Sea Grant Extension. Click images to enlarge.

Thanks to support from the STEM program at HMSC, each participating teacher took home a tub of materials, enough to build 40 of the small devices in their classroom. Central Lincoln PUD also donated enough money to purchase kits for every middle school and high school in their service district (Lincoln City to North Bend). Kits are also available at HMSC to be "checked out" by any interested teacher. Funding for the project was also provided by Oregon Sea Grant.

Instructions for building the model wave energy device are here, and the entire Wave Energy Handbook is freely available from Oregon Sea Grant.

Moon is excited about the future possibilities for this project. First she wants to publicize the availability of the handbook via publications and presentations at conferences. She and Hanshumaker have already begun to discuss the possibility of designing another type of miniature wave energy device, and she has many ideas for expanding the handbook into a full-blown curriculum that could cover an entire school term.

"There’s no other curriculum out there that covers this information," she says. "We’re on the cutting edge."

"If we want to strengthen a discourse (on the topic of alternative energy), you do that through kids," she says. "They’re going to bring this stuff home, get excited about it, talk about it at the dinner table. That’s how you generate a movement."