Academic journal article Science Scope

Adaptable Inquiry-Based Activities about National Patterns of Coal and Energy Use

Academic journal article Science Scope

Adaptable Inquiry-Based Activities about National Patterns of Coal and Energy Use

Article excerpt

As the United States strives to achieve energy independence, students need to be literate about energy and environmental issues. We present here a lesson about our nation's electricity resources that is part 1 of a free, comprehensive unit on coal and energy that is available online ( unit). The comprehensive unit, which was developed by graduate students supported by the Transforming Earth System Science Education project at Penn State University, contains inquiry-based lessons designed to deepen students' understanding of key Earth-science issues. Data on electricity-generation resources in the United States, including both renewable and nonrenewable types, are highlighted within the lesson of part 1. Coal currently provides over 50% of the United States' electricity (U.S. EIA 2011) and, despite environmental concerns, will remain a major source of domestic energy. Other domestic electricity resources (water, nuclear, petroleum, natural gas, wind, biomass, and solar) are equally important, but geographic and geologic circumstances, as well as technological shortcomings, limit their current usage. Part 2 of the comprehensive unit includes lessons that address more detail about coal. In both parts of the unit, students learn fundamental information about the development and use of domestic energy sources. The full lesson for part 1 is included here, but both parts of the comprehensive unit are also described. Completion of all or part of the unit will provide an interdisciplinary look at our nation's energy resources. The activities are integrated with the "big ideas" of Earth-science literacy (Figure 1) and with relevant national and state standards of learning and assessment for middle grades, including structure of the Earth system, Earth's history, and human dependence on natural resources (NRC 1996; NRC 2012).

FIGURE 1 Objectives and NSES

Earth science           Emphasis in coal and energy unit
literacy initiative
big ideas

Earth scientists use   Ongoing technological advances and
repeatable             research in academia and industry
observations and       have led to
testable ideas to      1. more effective use of coal
understand and         through better understanding about
explain our planet.    its structure, chemistry, and
                       2. explanations of and solutions to
                       coal's environmental concerns; and
                       3. increased appreciation of coal as
                       a domestic energy resource that can
                       address our country's energy

Earth is a complex     A combination of Earth systems
system of              contributed to the formation of coal
interacting rock,     over long periods of time such that
water, air, and        variations in regional geographic
life.                  chemistry, heat, pressure, tectonic
                       environment, and time contributed to
                       the different ranks of coal.

Earth is continuously  The active geologic processes that
changing.              contributed to coal formation are
                       continuous and still occurring today
                       (albeit over geologic time).

Humans depend on       We depend on Earth for coal as a
Earth for resources.   natural resource to provide energy
                       for modern conveniences in life
                       (e.g., electric power, various
                       chemical products) and opportunities
                       to expand and improve human
                       exploration of the world. The
                       geology of particular geographic
                       regions contributes to the existence
                       or nonexistence of coal there, which
                       sometimes is directly related to the
                       development and distribution of
                       human civilization there. … 
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