Exploring Alternative Fuels in Middle Schools: Students Were Given the Opportunity to Learn about a Current, Global Issue and How They Might Have an Impact

Article excerpt

Introduction

Alternative energy sources have become increasingly important as the production of domestic oil has declined and our dependence on foreign oil has increased. Pickens (2008) believes the greatest threat to ever face the United States is "our crippling dependence on foreign oil" (p. 3). Historically, there have been four time periods during which the United States was in fact crippled by oil shortages. These time periods include: the early 1900s, World War II, the early 1970s, and most recently, a fifteen-month period from 2007-2009 (Energy Information Administration, 2008b). During this most recent time period, oil prices doubled in only nine months and then fell to half the original price in the next six months (see Table 1). Americans felt the effects of this phenomenon in many aspects of their lives: travel to work, vacations, groceries, buying products that required shipping, and the cost of heating their homes. This uncontrollable change in oil prices will happen again as our nation's demand continues to increase while domestic production and future foreign production diminish (Pickens, 2008, pp. 127-131). The general population needs to be technologically literate concerning alternative fuels in order to make intelligent decisions on meeting our energy needs.

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This article focuses on a new unit of study that teaches concepts relating to alternative fuels--specifically, ethanol and biodiesel. Also covered will be the responses from students, parents, and administrators concerning the new unit of instruction. This article does not claim to be the definitive answer to alternative fuels, but the unit has proven successful and will, hopefully, encourage teachers to explore curricular activities covering all aspects and types of alternative fuels.

In 2007, experiments with biodiesel were suggested during an experimental laboratory class at Utah State University. The term "biodiesel" was made familiar through media exposure. However, little was known about its applications, attributes, or the process of producing the fuel. Through guidance and a demonstration from a graduate student, students learned that biodiesel could be produced at a skill level appropriate for middle school students. After the purchase of required equipment, the class experimented with the process of making and testing biodiesel. At that point, the author realized he had his next unit of instruction idea. He had been looking for a unit that would cover the Standards for Technological Literacy (STL) area, "Students will develop an understanding of technology and society," which consists of standards four through seven (ITEEA/ ITEA, 2000/2002/2007, p. 15). Learning about and introducing a new technology that represents a current global issue has been exciting. Before this experience, the author had not taught anything on alternative fuels but realized how vital this topic is for today's students.

Methodology

The development of a standards-based unit of instruction for middle school students on alternative fuels was used as a project for an MS degree at Utah State University. This unit was structured using the backwards-design approach. In the first stage, the following standards were selected from the Standards for Technological Literacy document:

* Standard 3--The relationships among technologies and the connections between technology and other fields.

* Standard 4--The cultural, social, economic, and political effects of technology.

* Standard 5--The effects of technology on the environment.

* Standard 6--The role of society in the development and use of technology.

* Standard 7--The influence of technology on history.

* Standard 15--Agricultural and related biotechnologies.

* Standard 18--Transportation technologies. (ITEEA/ITEA, 2000/2002/2007, p. 15)

After these standards were selected, lesson objectives and student outcomes were established. …