Renewable Energy in 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.
Renewable energy is one of many partial solutions that scientists and engineers around the world have been developing and improving over the last few decades. Recently, the U.S. generated the largest percentage of its energy from renewable sources since the 1930s, when burning wood was actually a substantial portion of our country’s energy budget. Now, renewable energy in the form of wind, solar, fuel cells, and more is becoming a substantial part of our energy output. And with electric and fuel cell cars starting to show up on more and more streets, it’s more important than ever to get a solid education in what makes renewable energy work.
In the context of Earth or Environmental Science, renewable energy technologies are useful in their ability to generate electricity without causing harmful pollution or exploiting the limited resources of our planet. How do they do that? Renewable energy labs run with smaller versions of renewable energy generators can illuminate the workings of these machines that can greatly reduce our society’s environmental impact.
Here are just a few of the many ways that renewable energy can be used as a topic to inspire student interest in an Earth or Environmental Science classroom.
1. Measure the amount of electricity produced by a renewable energy and determine how large of a generator it would take to power the whole school, or how many would be required to power the whole country.
2. Use a wind turbine to discuss what areas of the world, based on prevailing winds, would make good places for renewable wind energy.
3. Spark discussions about the apparent movement of the Sun through the sky in daily and yearly patterns by looking at how the efficiency of a solar panel changes when light strikes it at different angles.
4. Generate hydrogen from a reversible fuel cell, then create electricity from the hydrogen and determine what energy was lost and how fuel cells could be used as a non-polluting source of electricity.