Energy is a concept at the center of every scientific discipline. For example, in life science, students learn that all organisms need energy to carry out their life functions. In physical science, students learn about the conversion of potential to kinetic energy when an object is set in motion, and the transfer of energy that occurs when that object collides with another. In earth and space science, they study the role of energy in the creation and fate of the universe. It is important for students to see that energy -- the ability to do work or cause change -- means the same thing no matter what the context.
In this lesson plan, students examine the role of energy in our daily lives -- that is, how we produce the energy that we use to power our cities, our homes, and our schools, and at what cost. Students study several forms of energy production. They discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each energy resource, in particular, the controversy surrounding the use of nuclear energy. In the end, students gain insight into the difficult choices that must be made in order to meet the energy demands of a modern society.
Note - This lesson can also be used in conjunction with theApp Exception: phy03.sci.engin.systems.lp_renew lesson plan. See Part II of this lesson.
- Discover that there are various forms of energy production in the world, each with its own risks and benefits
- Understand that fossil fuels are formed from decomposing organic matter and, when burned, contribute to the carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere
- Learn that hydroelectric power is produced when falling water turns an electromagnet that generates electricity
- Understand that nuclear power is produced when neutrons bombard heavy atoms, which release energy in a process called fission
Grade Levels: 6-8, 9-12
- Three to four class periods
- Snapshot of US Energy Use Video
- Energy Sources Video
- Carbon Cycle Diagram JPEG Image
- Global Warming: Beyond Fossil Fuels HTML Document
- Hoover Dam and Hydroelectric Power Video
- Nuclear Reaction: Fission Video
- Nuclear Reaction: Searching for Safety HTML Document
- Nuclear Reaction: Interview with Mayor Steve Reed HTML Document
Before the Lesson
- Print out one color copy of the Carbon Cycle Diagram for each group of two or three students.
Part I: Sources of Energy
1. Show the Snapshot of US Energy Use video and lead a discussion on how our society is dependent on energy. Ask:
- When was the last long-term blackout in your area?
- What did people do for food, heat, and entertainment?
- In what ways could we reduce our energy usage?
- Would this be a good idea? Why?
2. Show the Energy Sources video and discuss the following:
- What types of energy production facilities are in your community?
- What types of energy production do you think are preferable? Why?
- Are there any types of energy production that you think should be avoided or limited? Why?
Part II: Fossil Fuels and Hydroelectric Energy
3. Divide the class into groups of two or three. Distribute a copy of the Carbon Cycle Diagram to each group. Have them discuss as a group what type of energy production is shown in this image and what effects it is having on the rest of the system. Ask them to hypothesize why these natural resources are called fossil fuels. Then lead a class discussion on where fossil fuels come from (decomposed organic matter) and how the burning of fossil fuels releases carbon back into the atmosphere.
4. Have students read the Global Warming: Beyond Fossil Fuels document. Ask them to identify the advantages and disadvantages of using fossil fuels as an energy resource. Are they a renewable or nonrenewable resource? Why? If nonrenewable, over what time scale?
5. Show the Hoover Dam and Hydroelectric Power video. Have students discuss the advantages and disadvantages of hydroelectric power. Ask:
- Where does the energy produced by hydroelectric plants come from?
- Where are hydroelectric plants likely to be found?
- Is hydroelectric power a renewable or nonrenewable energy resource? Why?
If time allows, you can strengthen students' background knowledge of renewable energy sources and how to design storage systems by doing theApp Exception: phy03.sci.engin.systems.lp_renew lesson.
Part III: Production of Nuclear Energy
6. Have students watch the Nuclear Reaction: Fission video. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power.
7. Have students read the Nuclear Reaction: Searching for Safety and Nuclear Reaction: Interview with Mayor Steve Reed documents. Discuss the different points of view surrounding the use of nuclear power. Ask:
- Why do you think the use of nuclear power is so controversial?
- Do the video and the two text documents share the same point of view?
- Why is the decision whether to use nuclear power so difficult to make?
Part IV: Creating an Energy Plan
8. Have students work in teams to create an energy plan for their community or the country. Have students assume roles such as safety engineer, resource locator, financial officer, and scientist to work together and try to reach consensus on a plan. They can use the Internet and other resources to research and identify alternative types of energy production such as wind turbines, tidal power, and geothermal energy, as well as those discussed in this lesson plan. The point of this activity is not only for students to learn about energy resources, but to understand how difficult are the decisions that must be made in order to provide energy for the country. Conclude the activity with a discussion on what each individual can do to conserve energy and thereby limit the economic and environmental costs associated with energy production.
Check for Understanding
Have students discuss the following:
- What are the various alternatives for energy production, and why would you choose one over another?
- What are the risks associated with the forms of energy production currently used in the U.S.?
- What changes could we make as individuals and as a society to produce a more environmentally friendly, economically sound, and/or safer energy plan for the U.S.?