Academic journal article Science and Children

GOT ENERGY: Fourth Graders Explore Energy Independence

Academic journal article Science and Children

GOT ENERGY: Fourth Graders Explore Energy Independence

Article excerpt

The Governor has just announced that our state needs to become more energy independent. He explains that in order to prevent the cutting of services and programs across the state, we need to consider measures that could make the state more self-sufficient. He has asked us to join the Virginia Energy Independence Initiative (VAEI2). As members of this science committee, we will work with other scientists to investigate and propose an energy plan that will allow us to achieve energy independence by 2025.

Wouldn't this pique your interest? Wouldn't you wonder what you were going to learn about? The fourth- grade students that we worked with were hooked with this scenario that introduced our problem-based learning (PBL) unit! Problem-based learning involves students solving a problem with multiple solutions over time, like a scientist in a real-world context (Hmelo-Silver 2004; Sterling et al. 2007). As such, PBL provides an avenue that allows students to consider real-world problems and develop the skills of a scientist (Chin and Chia 2004; Sterling and Hargrove 2012). In our PBL unit, the students wanted to be a part of this important endeavor to help their state become energy independent. We conceptualized energy independence as becoming self-sufficient for energy production. That is, using current or new sources of energy around the state that have few environmental impacts.

Our Scenario Sets the Stage

To provide the students with a real situation for this work and to demonstrate the importance of this issue, this scenario came to the students as a letter from the governor's office. As part of this introduction, we provide a focus question for our study: "How can Virginia become energy independent?" In addition, we always tell our students what types of products will be created to demonstrate learning and answer our focus question. For this unit, the students develop an energy plan that: (1) includes current energy sources available in the various regions of the state; (2) explains the feasibility and efficiency of each source; (3) proposes new sources of energy; and (4) analyzes the environmental impact of extraction, production, and use of the energy sources. This plan serves as a performance assessment for the students. During this two-to three-week unit, students conducted investigations into energy transformations, investigated renewable and non-renewable energy sources, researched energy sources in general and those used in Virginia, researched current energy use in Virginia, and analyzed an energy production map for Virginia. (We've shared an overview of the unit online; see NSTA Connection.)

Guiding the Students

After we introduce the scenario, students naturally have lots of questions like "What energy do we use in our community?" and "Are we going to produce energy to use in our school?" We build off these questions and encourage our students to brainstorm additional questions. To help focus their questions on the problem, we ask, "How can Virginia become energy independent?" which is the overarching question for the unit. As a class, we co-construct a question map (Figure 1). This question map helps us, as teachers, sequence lessons in the unit and helps the students continually connect each lesson's content back to the scenario and unit question. We've shared our process for developing a question map online (see NSTA Connection). For more on developing question maps, see the article "How to Create Problem-Based Learning Units" on p. 68 of this issue.

A Favorite Inquiry-Based Lesson: Energy Transformations Investigation

While this unit consisted of two weeks of lessons that built toward students proposing an energy plan, below we describe Lessons 2 and 3 (75 minutes total), which students really enjoyed in the unit. These lessons occurred early in the unit and provided students with the opportunity to consider the question, "How is one type of energy transformed into another type? …

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