LINCOLN - Trucks loaded with wind turbine blades or towers are a common sight on highways as wind farms spring up like Walmarts across the Great Plains, where winds blow strong.

Such signs are welcome in a depressed economy, but the question arises: Where are the people who will operate, maintain and improve the renewable technologies going to come from?

The Wind for Schools project is part of the solution. Launched in 2007, its goal is to install small wind turbines at rural elementary and secondary schools - and help educate and train students about wind power and other forms of renewable energy.

"It's all about career development," said Dan McGuire, who runs the Wind for Schools project in Nebraska. "What I like about it is it gives young folks in the K-12 schools the opportunity to look down the road about wind opportunities in the future."

McGuire said the project may help develop a workforce in Nebraska that is well-versed in wind energy technology and could attract manufacturers of blades, turbines and other wind generation equipment.

Nebraska, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana and South Dakota were the first states to participate in the project run by the U.S. Department of Energy's Wind Powering America program and National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

After getting the word out to Nebraska schools through informational meetings, the first turbine went up in 2008 at Elkhorn Valley Schools in Tilden.

"Over the last two years, it has caused our science teachers to look at new materials, it has enhanced and enriched our curriculum, and I think we are making our students and community more aware of renewable energy resources," said Elkhorn Valley Superintendent Ken Navratil.

He is set to give a presentation at the Nebraska Wind Power 2010 Conference this week in Kearney on what the 45-foot turbine near the school's bus barn has done for students, teachers and the community.

First graders, for example, built a four-blade windmill and experimented with how much energy it can generate to pull a load using a pulley. Sixth graders built wind turbine models that can run fans, turn on lights and measure the amount of energy produced. They also built a solar house model.

"It's not just limited to the science curriculum," Navratil said, adding that industrial arts students designed and built a battery-operated car with the help of physics students.

"We call it our energy curriculum. It's not just wind," he said. "We're looking at all forms of renewable energy sources. We put it into units where we think it fits, but our state standards come first."

At Diller-Odell Schools, FFA students helped build the foundation for their wind turbine. And at Papillion-LaVista, a civics class studied public policy issues related to renewable energy.

"It comes from all different directions: vocational agriculture, science, physics and math," McGuire said. "That all ties in with the potential career opportunities down the road."

The 45-foot-tall wind turbine at Elkhorn Valley was paid for with a $10,500 grant from USDA Rural Development, a $3,000 grant from the Nebraska Public Power District, $3,000 in work contributions from Rutjen's Construction in Tilden, $2,500 in green energy tax credits from Nucor Steel and a $1,000 grant from the Tilden-Meadow Grove Community Foundation.

The school district also applied for and got grants including $5,000 from the National Education Association. They plan to use the money to buy a weather station so students can study meteorology.

Hayes Center School District, Cedar Rapids Public Schools and Diller-Odell joined Elkhorn Valley that first year in putting up turbines.

Today, the number of K-12 schools with operating turbines has grown to nine, McGuire said, and 12 more school districts are in various stages of getting theirs up and running.

Those who participate don't expect to get a lot of electricity out of a wind turbine. They see it mainly as a teaching tool.

"This is not about generating a lot of electricity," McGuire said. "It emphasizes the importance of a small operating wind turbine on a school campus to help students and teachers apply classroom lessons."

McGuire's list of 21 school districts does not include community colleges, which are in a separate category. Southeast Community College just put up a turbine at its Lincoln campus near 84th and O streets. McGuire said the college will use it as part of a new energy curriculum beginning in January.

Wind turbines also have gone up on the Hastings campus of Central Community College and at Northeast Community College in Norfolk. The latter created the state's first wind technician training course in 2009.

McGuire credited NPPD and other utilities for helping with the projects, along with the Nebraska Attorney General's State Environmental Projects Grant Program and USDA Rural Development.

Navratil said the Tilden and Meadow Grove communities have adopted the school district's wind turbine. After six weeks of operation, it seized up.

"You would be surprised at how many people called and told us that pinwheel isn't spinning anymore."

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or algis.laukaitis@lee.net.