Fourth and Fifth Grade Students Learn about Renewable and Nonrenewable Energy through Inquiry

Article excerpt


A classroom of eighteen fourth and fifth graders in the Columbus, Ohio Public School system successfully evaluated how people obtain fossil fuels, how they are limited in nature, and how they can develop renewable energy solutions. Students modeled oil-drilling using: chocolate syrup, rice cereal, a baster, and a clear container. Chocolate oil became more difficult to pump as oil supplies diminished. While pumping, chocolate oil spills contaminated the drill hole and students excavated the polluted substrate. Students next learned more about oil spills by conducting their own clean-ups of vegetable oil in mini tap water oceans. Students learned that 'solving' the problem of the oil spill created new problems, including uninhabitable soapy oceans. This mimicked the failure of current technology to easily remediate oil spills. Finally to cultivate a better understanding of renewable energy, students built and tested solar ovens and discussed their benefits and limitations. After completing these activities, students showed a significant average improvement from their pretest to posttest understanding of renewable and nonrenewable resources. In addition, students were interested and excited to act on what they had learned.


Humanity's consumption of fossil fuels threatens our future. We must act and we must teach our children not only to understand the limitations of fossil fuels, but to understand that achieving a future based on clean, renewable energy requires their involvement. Since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, human carbon emissions have increased from 3.9 million metric tons to an estimated 6.4 million (Meadows, 2000). Now, more than ever, increased demand for fossil fuels threatens global relations and global climate (NATO, 2004). Global dependence on oil is projected to last at least 20 more years and competition for this oil will increase significantly by 2030 with demand from Southeast Asia increasing exponentially (NATO, 2004). Both improved education and public policy are critical to the achievement of energy sustainability (Dincer, 2000).

Using Inquiry to Understand Energy Challenges

This study describes nonrenewable and renewable energy fourth and fifth lesson plans and educational outcomes. Lesson plans were developed and evaluated while participating in the National Science Foundation Graduate Teaching K-12 Program (NSF GK-12). NSF GK12 pairs Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) graduate students with K-12 teachers to develop and implement new science curricula (NSF, 2008). STEM graduates participating in NSF GK-12 gain confidence communicating scientific ideas while K-12 students and teachers gain interest in science (NSF, 2008).

One class of eighteen fourth and fifth grade students (11 female; 7 male; 9 Euro-American; 6 African American; 2 Hispanic; 1 Asian) at an urban Columbus, Ohio Public school participated in this study. Permission to evaluate student learning was obtained from the school principal and teacher to evaluate the students as part of the NSF GK-12 Program.

The primary goal of this study is to explain and evaluate fourth and fifth grade geoscience-based lessons addressing major energy challenges. Science educators are charged with the goal of conveying important energy concepts to students because they are central to our global politics and economics (Rule, 2005). Bennett and Heafner (2004) suggest that student development of environmental awareness must include, "inquiry, implementation, and reflection". Hands-on lesson plans with time for reflection enhance student critical thinking abilities and give them more freedom in their scientific investigations (Council, 2000). Each lesson included features inquiry-based explorations.

The developed curriculum focuses on exploring three major energy challenges including: 1) understanding the limitation of fossil fuel reserves 2) learning the environmental costs of fossil fuel use and 3) understanding the benefits and limitations of renewable energy. …