To investigate the energy sources used in students' communities.
This lesson is part of the Energy in a High-Tech World Project, which examines the science behind energy. Energy in a High-Tech World is developed by AAAS and funded by the American Petroleum Institute. For more lessons, activities, and interactives that take a closer look at the science behind energy, be sure to check out the Energy in a High-Tech World Project page.
In this lesson, students will learn about the sources of the energy that supply their community. They will explore where the energy comes from, how it is transported, and the uses to which it is put.
It is important that students understand the concept of energy before considering where it comes from and how it serves their lives. The understanding of energy in grades 5–8 will build on the K–4 experiences with light, heat, sound, electricity, magnetism, and the motion of objects. In 5–8, students begin to see the connections among those phenomena and to become familiar with the idea that energy is an important property of substances and that most change involves energy transfer. Students might have some of the same views of energy as they do of force—that it is associated with animate objects and is linked to motion. In addition, students view energy as a fuel or something that is stored, ready to be used, and gets used up. The intent at this level is for students to improve their understanding of energy by experiencing many kinds of energy transfer.
Students' meanings for "energy" both before and after traditional instruction are considerably different from its scientific meaning. In particular, students believe energy is associated only with humans or movement, is a fuel-like quantity that is used up, or is something that makes things happen and is expended in the process. Students rarely think energy is measurable and quantifiable. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 338.)
Teachers have to decide what constitutes a sufficient understanding of energy and its transformation and conservation. In harmony with Science for All Americans, qualitative approximations are more important and should have priority. The quantitative idea should probably wait until high school. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 84.)
Students' awareness of energy sources can be enhanced by understanding that the growth of technology has led us to use some materials from the environment much more rapidly than they can be replaced by natural processes. Forests in many countries have been greatly reduced during the past few hundred years, and ore deposits are being depleted. There is a continuing search for substitute materials—and in many cases they have been found or invented. (Science for All Americans, p. 112.)
From previous lessons, students also should understand what energy is and how it can be measured; be familiar with the properties of light; and distinguish between renewable and non-renewable sources of energy, and compare the benefits and drawbacks of each. Some Science NetLinks lessons that could help students gain this knowledge include:
Before doing the Motivation activity, review with students the meaning of the words renewable and non-renewable. In general, a natural resource qualifies as a renewable resource if it is replenished by natural processes at a rate comparable to its rate of consumption by humans or other users. Some examples of renewable resources include fresh water, timber, and biomass.
A non-renewable resource is a natural resource that cannot be re-made, re-grown, or regenerated on a scale comparative to its consumption. Examples of non-renewable resources include coal, oil, and natural gas.
To help students review what they already know about energy, prepare note cards listing the ten major sources of energy—solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, water, petroleum, natural gas, coal, nuclear, and electricity. Make multiple copies so each student will have a card. Designate one side of the room "renewable energy" and the other "non-renewable energy." Shuffle the energy cards and have each student take one. Then instruct students not to show their cards to or talk with each other and to quietly go to the side of the room that describes their source of energy. After everyone is situated, discuss the results. On the renewable side should be: solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and water. On the non-renewable side should be: oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear. The students who have the "electricity" cards should stand in the middle of the room, since that source of energy is neither renewable nor non-renewable, but derived from the other, primary sources.
Finally, lead a class discussion reviewing students' understanding of energy sources, posing questions like these:
- What makes an energy source non-renewable? (It can’t be replenished naturally in a short time.)
- What is the major disadvantage of renewable energy sources? (They are not available all the time—the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn't always blow, and dams are often needed for flood control and can’t be used for hydropower.)
- What actions might help increase the use of renewable energy? (One possible action would be funding more research of renewable energy and providing incentives to adopt that energy to make it more cost competitive with conventional fuels.)
- Why is electricity neither renewable nor non-renewable? (Electricity is neither because it is a secondary energy source, which comes from the conversion of other renewable or non-renewable sources of energy.)
To help students explore what they already know about how energy affects their lives, have them brainstorm about the sources of energy they see and know about in their town, surrounding area, county, etc. Examples they offer may include coal mines, oil wells, corn fields for ethanol, landfills for biomass, wind farms, solar panels, and hydroelectric dams. List these energy sources on the blackboard or newsprint. Spend some time talking about them to help center the dialogue on the students' experience.
To extend students' awareness of where their energy comes from and how it is used in their community, have them work with a partner and follow their Plugging into Energy student esheet to access State Energy Profiles on the Energy Information Administration site. Have them click on the hyperlink for their state and read the quick facts. Instruct them to carefully examine the state map and use the key to identify the types of energy available, including the potential for developing renewable energy sources. As students look at this resource, they should work with their partners to answer the questions in the Energy Resources section of Your State’s Energy Scorecard student sheet.
Next, they should click on the "Overview" link at the top of the page and read the detailed information about the state’s energy sources.
Then, to help students explore how their state uses this energy, they should click on the "Data" link and then scroll down the page until they come to the Consumption section. Ask them to read the chart, paying particular attention to the "by Source" section and the "by End-Use Sector" section. Students should work with their partners to answer the questions in the Energy Consumption section of the student sheet. Once students have completed the student sheet, conduct a class discussion about what they have learned.
Now divide students into pairs and have them work together to conduct some more research on energy sources and use, but this time they should conduct research on a different part of the country. Students can use the State Energy Profiles resource again. They should be sure to research a part of the country that has a climate different from the one in which they live. Students can use the Energy Sources and Use student sheet to help them as they research the state.
Once they have the information for that state, they should create a poster where they compare and contrast the energy data from their state with the energy data from the other state. Ask students to share the information with the class.
You can extend the ideas in this lesson by having students access these other links on the Energy Information Administration website:
- Using & Saving Energy in Homes
- Energy Use Basics gives data about the residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation uses of energy
- Saving Energy is a source of information on energy efficiency, garbage, and recycling