SALT LAKE CITY — When third-grader Johnny Walz was handed the $1,000 check that was almost as big as him, he seemed happy. But when he was awarded his new black, solar-powered backpack with balloons tied to the handles, he beamed with delight.

To help kids learn to save energy, Johnny's third-grade class at J.E. Cosgriff Memorial Catholic School in Salt Lake City took on the Igniting Creative Energy Challenge.

The children were told to create a project like a poem or a board game in order to explore new and creative ways to make a difference in the way they use energy.

"You try and teach the children to be stewards of the Earth," Johnny's teacher Sue Sause said, "but then (with the challenge) they get to think of their own plan of how they're gonna do it. Just in their own community, their own family, their own neighborhood."

With the help of his mother, Beth, Johnny created a board game that teaches the players ways to conserve energy.

The game made Johnny the state winner of the Energy Challenge, a national contest sponsored by Johnson Controls, a West Valley company that helps schools save on energy costs.

Pieces can land on spaces labeled with inscriptions like "Forgot to turn off lights, move back two." But if players make good choices, they can move forward four to five spaces.

By the end, according to Walz, the players have learned valuable lessons about how to conserve energy and keep the Earth clean through simple actions like turning off the lights when leaving a room.

"He just took every element that we wanted, He took something that a family could do and then he made a really attractive board," said Janet Hatch of the National Energy Foundation. Sause said her students work together to apply those lessons in the classroom. Some of the third-graders even remind parents not to leave the motor running when they're waiting to pick them up.

The school only recycles paper, so all other recyclables are placed in a plastic bag hanging on the door. At the end of the week, the children fight to be the one who takes the bag home and recycle it in their family's recycle bin.

"We're going to have to change the way we use and produce energy in this world," said Bruce Munson of Johnson Controls. "It's gonna be these kids who figure out how we use and utilize and create energy."

e-mail: ebassett@desnews.com