Learn about renewable energy in a different way

The question every teacher is asked, sometimes too often, is, “Why do we need to know this?”  It’s something that everyone has thought while sitting in a class at some point, whether we verbalized it or not.  Teachers usually view this query as an annoyance: you need to know this because it’s important!  If nothing else, all teachers can see the end-of-year exam or standardized test looming in the near future and want their students to be able to succeed.

The best teachers understand the links between seemingly unimportant details in their class and the grand architecture of a larger world.  They know that their students won’t be able to make the leaps to the greater understandings of the world around them without a solid foundation in concepts that may seem meaningless at the time.  Such big ideas can be valuable tools in getting students excited about content in science classrooms.  If we start from these ideas, students will want to learn more.

Renewable energy can be one of those big ideas that can drive student learning throughout a unit or even a whole year.  From the massive, graceful wind turbines rising from acres of farmland to the dark, silent solar panels adorning more and more residential roofs, renewable energy has become an inescapable part of everyday life for many people.  Students have a natural curiosity about these technologies, as well as ideas that they’ve heard for as long as they can remember such as “saving the environment,” “global warming,” or “green energy.”  What about the environment needs saving?  Is the Earth really getting warmer?  What makes energy green?

Renewable energy

Science Class: Earth/Environmental Science

Earth and Environmental Sciences are probably the fields that relate most readily to renewable energy.  One of the major areas of inquiry in these fields is the effects of human activity on global climate.  Despite what some would have you believe, there’s no “controversy” or “debate” about the state of the world’s climate.  After recording global temperatures since the 1830s, atmospheric carbon concentrations since the 1950s, satellite monitoring of sea surface temperature since the 1980s, and many other hundreds of observations and research studies that stretch our knowledge of climatic conditions into the deep, pre-human past, climate scientists know exactly how our climate has been changing, and why.  While they may debate the reliability of proxies or the nature of specific mechanisms, the conclusions are the same: our planet is warming, and we are the cause.

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Renewable energy

Learn about renewable energy

In a Physics classroom, questions about renewable energy might be the idea that drives students to learn about the rotational kinetics of a wind turbine.  A Chemistry class might use renewable energy to explore the electrochemical reactions within a hydrogen fuel cell.  And Earth Science students will have a much better grasp on humankind’s impact on global climate if they look into the production and uses of ethanol fuel.

But in a larger sense, we all need to study renewable energy as citizens of the world.  Our planet is still the only one we have, and though some can argue about why its climate is changing, no one can deny that changes are happening.  And even if humans were completely blameless in changing the climate, that wouldn’t replenish the coal, oil, and gas in our planet’s crust that we’ve been removing far faster than it can be replaced.

Renewable energy will continue to expand in the public consciousness as we improve the technologies that make it work and it becomes more accessible and affordable. The students of today need to study renewable energy because it will be a vital part of the world they inhabit.  And in learning about renewable energy, they’ll also be learning concepts and skills that will help them succeed in school and in their chosen careers.

Science Class: Chemistry

Chemistry is one of the core disciplines of science, defining the way that elements and compounds interact at the atomic level to create the wondrous variety of materials and substances that make up the physical world and our universe at large.  Students of chemistry have to understand the interactions of electrons, solve chemical equations, and be able to perform reactions in a lab setting.  And each of these skills can be taught through the medium of renewable energy.

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