Climate Literacy

October 13, 2016
By: Megan Hubbard, Education Ambassador

Understanding Energy before Climate Change

The bean value is different than what the students used. They used 1 bean = 1% while I used 1 bean = 0.1% to be able to display that solar and geothermal are less than 1%.
The bean value is different than what the students used. They used 1 bean = 1% while I used 1 bean = 0.1% to be able to display that solar and geothermal are less than 1%.

“…at least my students are optimistic.” That’s what I tell myself as I look at how far off their assumptions are about where our energy comes from. We have been learning about energy sources, and I asked them to guess the percentages of how much energy the United States gets from different energy sources. To do this, I gave each group 100 beans and 10 cups labeled with the different energy sources. The 100 beans represented 100% of the energy the US consumes each year, and their job was to divvy up those 100 beans up into the 10 cups to represent the percentage that comes from each source. Eleven out of the fifteen groups put the most beans in their petroleum cup, correctly guessing that we get the highest percentage of energy from petroleum, but what was shocking to me was how much energy they thought we are getting from renewable energy sources. On average, their guesses had 34% of the US’s energy consumption coming from renewable energy sources. They were a bit shocked when I revealed the actual percentages. Only 10% of the US’s energy consumption in 2015 came from renewable energy sources. When I started teaching 10 years ago, this number was only 6%, so at least it’s been going up I told them.

It’s easy to see why their guesses about renewable energy were so far off. In Berkeley, California, where our school is located, many houses and businesses have solar panels on their roofs. Many of the students have driven on a major highway leading out of the Bay Area that cuts through the Altamont Pass, where the hills are filled with wind turbines. Many reservoirs in the state are popular recreation areas, and they have learned that the dams creating reservoirs can also generate electricity. Toyota Priuses and other hybrid and electric cars are more common in the school pick-up line than big SUVs. To be honest, I can’t think of where the nearest coal or natural-gas power plant might be in our state, but I will be sure to look those up for a future lesson. I know we have one nuclear power plant left in California, but it is slated to close within the next decade.

beansincupsI’ve been teaching about energy now for five weeks in my sixth grade science classes. I haven’t formally introduced the idea of climate change yet, and I won’t for a while, although it has come up from students who have some prior knowledge of its connection to fossil fuels. When we do get to the topic of climate change, we will spend several months on it, but before I introduce that, I want my students to have a strong understanding of energy and how we use it. I want them to understand the technology behind all the energy sources we use, and be excited about the new technologies being developed now that could get that 10% closer to the 34% they had optimistically assumed. I want them to know all this before I even mention the words climate change. I want them to understand the pros and cons of all of these energy sources, renewable and nonrenewable, and the costs associated with them, and of course, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change will come up in these discussions, so I can’t avoid it forever.

There’s no script for me to follow when teaching climate change, so why do I spend so much time on energy before I even talk about climate change? I guess I want them to understand energy’s role in their lives before I scare them with the impacts that our energy usage has on our climate. A new coworker asked me the other day how my students in past years had responded emotionally to my lessons about climate change. Assessment is a regular part of teaching, but the emotional reaction of my students was never something I had thought to measure or record. How they feel about climate change comes up in discussions and their writing. Some are mad, some are discouraged, some are motivated to make a difference, and some are indifferent. As a teacher, it’s this emotional piece that is sometimes the scariest thing to think about. Teaching just the science of climate change is so much easier (although with climate change, making sure I have the latest and most up-to-date science is often more challenging than with other topics), but can I just ignore the emotional reactions of my students?

I can control what I teach them. I can control the research and time that I put into my lessons on climate change. I can’t control how they respond, and ultimately I’ve decided that it is not my responsibility. It is my responsibility to prepare them to be informed members of society who will use science and critical thinking when casting votes and making decisions about how to live. Middle school can be a tough time full of emotional roller coasters for students (usually caused by social drama), but the emotional roller coasters they might go through when learning about climate change are not something I dare try to control. They deserve to understand the science, and they deserve the freedom to respond with their own roller coaster of emotions.


Table comparing student guesses to 2015 US energy consumption data

Data page from U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Monthly Energy Review,” March 2016, Page 7