Academic journal article The Science Teacher

The Future of Energy: Having Students Compare the Effects of Different Energy Sources on the Environment

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

The Future of Energy: Having Students Compare the Effects of Different Energy Sources on the Environment

Article excerpt

The energy sources we use to generate electricity are changing due to concerns about pollution and climate change, the rise of affordable renewable energy, and the current availability of low-cost natural gas. Because the infrastructure to supply energy requires an enormous investment, our decisions today will have long-term effects. When considering our energy future, we must consider:

* Should we subsidize renewable energy?

* How will our transportation systems change?

* How do we deal with the variability of electricity output from renewable energy sources like wind and solar when power demand is consistent?

* Can we develop battery technology to store energy during low-demand periods?


These questions have no easy answers. Making energy choices means considering multiple factors, exploring competing ideas, and reaching conclusions based on the best available evidence.

This article describes a five-day online energy module (see "On the web"), developed by the Concord Consortium (an educational research and development organization) in which students compare the effects of various energy sources on air quality, water quality, and land use. The module's interactive models explore hydraulic fracturing, real-world data on energy production and consumption, and scaffolded argumentation tasks to help students examine evidence and discuss the issues associated with claims based on models and data. The free module, which aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013; see box p. 68), runs on computers or tablets.


Arguing with evidence

Scientific argumentation has been defined as making and defending claims with supporting evidence (Berland and McNeill 2010; Osborne 2010). Science teachers increasingly focus on developing students' argumentation skills. A scientific argument typically includes:

* the claim.a conjecture, conclusion, principle, or answer to a research question;

* or findings from students that have been collected and analyzed; and

* reasoning.statements that explain the importance and relevance of the evidence and how the evidence supports the claim (McNeill and Krajcik 2007).

In the energy module, students construct scientific arguments based on this claim, evidence, and reasoning (CER) framework (McNeill and Krajcik 2007). Additionally, students characterize and consider the limitations of evidence from the models and data when developing their arguments, which is known as uncertainty-infused scientific argumentation (Lee et al. 2010).

Our energy choices have direct and indirect effects on our health, environment, and economy. The United States uses coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear fuel, hydroelectric dams, and renewable resources to generate electricity. Each source has advantages and disadvantages. Students must carefully examine the evidence when considering complex, nuanced questions such as: "Will we have enough affordable energy in the near future?"

Comparing electricity sources

The energy module first asks students, working in groups of two or three, to analyze an interactive map of electricity sources from 2001-2010 to determine the sources used in their own state. Pie charts (Figure 1) allow students to identify changes in each state's sources of electricity and to quickly compare electricity sources in different states.

Next, students compare electricity use in the United States with that in the rest of the world. The module asks: With a growing global population and an increased demand for electricity, how can we continue to meet the demand while minimizing negative environmental impacts?

Teaching hydraulic fracturing

In the second and third activities, students learn about hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a method of extracting natural gas from shale, to make evidence-based arguments about energy choices. …

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