Comparing Energy Resources: Pros and Cons

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Objective

Students will be able to compare the pros and cons of various energy resources and determine which resource is the best option to both meet our future energy needs and minimize our environmental impact

Big Idea

All energy resources come with some environmental cost

Introduction

This lesson is a follow up to the previous lesson on energy resources and gives students an opportunity to conduct short research to learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of various energy resources.

 In this lesson, students will form small groups which are each assigned a particular energy resource (e.g., a coal group, a petroleum group, a solar group, etc.).  They will then conduct short research about the pros and cons of their particular energy resource and make an informative poster.  All students will then do a gallery walk around the room taking notes from the posters of other groups. Following the gallery walk, students will be asked to write a short argument explaining which energy resource(s) best balances our society's energy needs with consideration of the environment.  Finally, we have a short discussion and a mock vote to choose two energy resources that our society can use in the future.

Please Note that you will need the following materials for this lesson:

  • Poster paper
  • Markers
  • Computers or smartphones with internet access

 

Connection to Standards:

In this lesson, students will conduct short research and integrate multiple information sources to solve a problem, present information clearly and distinctly in a visual format, write an argument using content knowledge and vocabulary, develop claims supported by evidence, and make a concluding statement that follows the established argument.

 

Warm Up

5 minutes

I begin this lesson with a quick review of the concept of a cost benefit analysis from the economics and the environment lesson way back when in the second unit of class.  Since this lesson comes towards the end of the school year, I use the Prom as a means of providing an example of a cost benefit analysis.  I ask students to list some of the costs and benefits of going to Prom.  Students respond that prom has serious time and financial costs, but that it has the benefit of "a memory of a lifetime".  Similarly, skipping prom may have the benefit of saving time and money, but it costs someone the chance to have the typical American Prom experience.

I then review the concept of electricity being a secondary energy resource made from primary energy resources, which was discussed in the previous lesson on energy resources.  I do this by asking students to describe some of the ways that energy is being used in the classroom right now.  Although a few students will point out that their bodies are busy using up chemical energy from food they've consumed, most students will point out that most of the energy use in the classroom is in the form of devices such as lights, AC, their phones, the sound system, etc. that run on electrical energy.  I then ask if electricity is a primary energy resource by asking if these devices are powered by lightning strikes.  Students respond that, of course, this is not the case.  I then try and elicit the explanation that electricity is a secondary energy resource because it must be produced by converting some other type of energy.  I ask students to offer a few examples of these primary energy resources and hopefully they can offer most of the energy resources that we discussed in the previous lesson.  As they offer these resources, I write them on the board:

  • petroleum
  • coal
  • natural gas
  • solar
  • wind
  • water
  • geothermal
  • nuclear
  • biofuels

 

I then explain to students that like going to the prom or making a decision to do one thing or another, each energy resource has particular pros and cons, and explain that today they will be forming small groups that will be doing research to do a quick cost benefit analysis on a specific energy resource, have the opportunity to share that information with their classmates, and then decide as a group which energy resource best balances our energy needs and desire to protect the environment.

Once we've done this quick warm up and review, I distribute the activity instructions and let students know that we'll soon form groups and get started.

 

Independent Practice: Researching and Making a Poster

40 minutes

Since there are nine energy resources that will be examined, I form groups by having students count off in nines.  I then have students go to a table with their new group and I use the list of energy resources on the activity instruction worksheet to assign specific energy resources to the numbered groups (e.g., group 1 gets petroleum, group 2 gets coal, and so on).  

Since I have a small class, most groups wind up with only 2 or 3 members, making individual students more accountable to their group.

Once groups have been assigned their energy resource, I have a member from each group get poster paper and markers.  If necessary, I allow groups to get a computer to do their research, but most of my students just used their smartphones.  

 

Before students to begin work on their poster, I go over the requirements that their poster must include

  • the name of the energy resource
  • an image that represents the resource
  • a list of pros and cons of the resource

 

I then let students know they will have 30 minutes to complete their poster and I give warnings when there are 15, 10 and 5 minutes left.

While students are working, I move around the class offering help where necessary.  most groups can get right to the work, but some need a little prodding to get going.  Since most groups have multiple smartphones, I suggest to struggling groups that one member might do an internet image search for their energy resource (so that they can select and draw a visual representation of the resource) and the other search for pros and cons (e.g., I suggested one group Google "solar power pros and cons").  If there's a third member, they can be tasked with organizing the info on the poster.  Because of the time limit, it's important for students to divide up the work so that making the poster is a cooperative and collaborative endeavor.  

As you can see in this image of students doing research, there are already several web resources that have essentially organized this information already, it's just a matter of finding it and deciding which to include in their poster.  Once most groups are on track, I spend my time just making sure groups know what the time limit is and make myself available for their questions.

However, I try and minimize my involvement because, by this point in the year, I'm hoping my students have acquired the skills to gather and analyze information on their own.  That's essentially the point of this lesson: if you're trying to make a decision, how can you sift through the copious amounts of available information to do so?

Gallery Walk: Students take notes from their peers' work

20 minutes

After all groups have completed posters, students are given 15 minutes to do a "gallery walk" and view other groups' posters.  I let students know that they should move quickly enough to visit all stations.  Rather than have a student stay with their posters to explain their work, I prefer to have students let their posters speak for themselves.  Additionally, because each student will be required to write an argument about which energy resource is the best option for our energy needs, it's important that everyone move around the room to see every poster.

During this time, students use the space provided on the activity instructions sheet to take notes about the different resources from the posters that their peers made.  Before they begin, I let them know that they don't need to write down everything from every poster, but that they should rather write down what they think are the most relevant points to the essential question of the lesson: Which energy resources are the best compromise between meeting our energy needs and protecting the environment?


This is an opportunity for more "distributed teaching", students take notes from each other's work.  It's less work for me and more engaging for students.

Writing: Which energy resource is best?

10 minutes

Once the time limit for the gallery walk is up, I have students leave their groups and return to their original seats.  I then ask them to focus their attention to the short answer question at the bottom of the activity instructions sheet

Consider the pros and cons of each energy resource.  Which resource(s) do you think societies should use to meet their future energy needs?  

Although it's written at the bottom of the page, I deliver the following caveat out loud:  Make sure your response includes an explanation of why you made your choice by addressing the disadvantages of the energy source, but ultimately why its advantages made it be the best choice.  

I ask students if there are any questions they have before beginning, and then give them about 10 minutes of silent time to compose their written response.  

If students need assistance, I might quietly point out that the notes they took during the gallery walk should provide a framework to consider which resources have the strongest benefits relative to their costs.  Again, since this lesson occurs at the end of the year, I do less handholding here and expect that students are able to use the facts they've collected to make and support a claim.  

As you can see in this student's response, they not only explained why nuclear power was their preferred energy resource, they preemptively addressed expected counterclaims and explained why they did not think solar power was a realistic choice to meet our energy needs.

Decision Time: Final discussion and Vote

20 minutes

Once students have had time to write their own opinion, we have a short class discussion allowing students to explain their choices for the written segment.  I ask students to volunteer their choices and their reasoning.  After a few students have done so, I refer back to the list of resources I wrote on the board during the warm up and use it to elicit a wider variety of responses and supporting evidence (e.g., "Ok... did anyone choose wind power?  Ok... why did you choose that?" or "A lot of you are mentioning the pros of water power, but I haven't heard any mention of the cons... does someone want to share a reason it wouldn't be a good idea to rely on water as our primary energy resource?").  I continue in this way until arguments for or against most of the energy resources on the board have been heard.   


Finally, we have a vote.  I tell students that they are members of a congressional committee that will determine only 2 energy resources that Americans can use to supply our energy needs.   I then explain that students are allowed to vote for two separate resources, but not twice for the same resource.  I pass out two small pieces of paper to each students and ask them to vote by writing a resource of their choice on each paper.  I then collect the pieces of paper, tally the votes next to the resource list on the board and announce the winners.  In the case of my class, the two "winners" were the environmentally friendly solar and water power.  

 

After this vote, if time allows we close with a discussion about whether students agree or disagree with the class' decision.  If not, I ask students to write a short statement about whether they agree or disagree with the choices of the congressional committee along with an explanation why, which we then discuss shortly at the beginning of the next class meeting.