This activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards (National Academy Press 1996): Content Standard E: Science and Technology— Understanding About Science and Technology; and Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives—Types of Resources; Populations, Resources, and Environments; and Science and Technology in Local Challenges.
As current energy consumers as well as future voters and decision makers, your students can begin to understand how the energy they use every day is produced and consumed. Depending on the age and ability of your students, they could create an energy profile of their own homes, of their community, or of their state. Comparisons of the United States with another nation or with the world as a whole would also be very informative. A good source of information for this activity is the website of the Energy Information Administration at the U.S. Department of Energy, including www.eia.doe.gov, which provides links to state-by-state statistics on energy production and consumption. Local utility companies may also have information on their websites or through their public affairs or education office.
What's Happening at Home?
According to the Department of Energy, about half the energy consumed in American homes is natural gas, with electricity running a strong second (35 percent). Have students check with their parents to find out how their homes compare. Take a class survey on how student homes are heated. Does anyone use renewable energy sources in their home–a wood stove, perhaps, or a solar hot water-heating system? Perhaps a few parents could be persuaded to share information about their utility bills.
- Have students prepare pie charts showing the results of the home heating survey.
- Have students use utility bills to prepare graphs on home energy use through the year. For instance, their graphs could show the number of kilowatts of electricity used each month.
Some students might be interested in going one step further and investigating where their home's electricity comes from. What fuel is used at your local power plant?
- Have students create posters showing how electricity gets from the power plant to their homes.
Around 70 percent of energy in households is used for space and water heating, with appliances and lighting consuming more than 20 percent.
- Have students take a room-by-room survey of their homes to find out ways in which they and their families use energy.
Canvassing the Community/Surveying the State
Older students should be capable of expanding their energy horizons by examining energy use in your community or state. Perhaps the most difficult part of this exercise will be determining what particular entity to investigate. The website mentioned above contains a substantial amount of information on state energy production and consumption. While local utility companies may be able to make data available to you and your students, it may not be information that can be applied directly to your community. Keep in mind, however, that the purpose of this investigation is not primarily to gather precise data, but rather to get your students to think about how energy is produced and consumed in your area.
The Energy Department divides the major energy users in the United States into the following categories:
- Industrial–includes factories, chemical plants, refineries, steel and paper mills (37 percent)
- Transportation–includes personal automobiles as well as commercial vehicles and public transportation (27 percent)
- Residential–houses and apartment buildings (20 percent)
- Commercial–includes office buildings, shopping malls, schools, hospitals (16 percent)
Discuss with students what comprises each of these categories, and then ask them to think about your community. Divide the class into groups and have each group create a map of your community, highlighting the major energy users. As the groups make their maps, they should consider the following questions:
- Who are the major users of energy?
–Is your community largely residential?
–Are there large office buildings or shopping malls?
–What about major industries?
- What is the transportation network like?
–Do most people drive to get to work, school, and shops?
–What alternatives are available–public transportation, bike trails, etc.?
Next, have your students research answers to these questions about the sources of your community's energy:
- Where are the electric power plants that serve your community?
- What fuel(s) do these power plants use?
- Is the fuel available locally or is it imported from another state? From another country? How does the fuel get to the power plant?
- Are there natural gas pipelines serving your area? Where does the gas originate?
- Does any of your community's energy supply come from renewable sources? Student groups should add some of the results of their research to the maps they created in Part 1 of this activity.
As an extension, students can investigate conservation programs in your community.What steps has your community taken to save energy? Has the school instituted any energy conservation measures? What about students' families?