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October 5, 2005

Exploring alternative energy sources – Lesson Plan

By Lisa Prososki, a former middle and high school teacher


Secondary science, geography, and current events classes

Estimated Time

Three to four 50-minute class periods plus additional time for classroom presentation and extension activities.

Grade Level

10-12 (lesson can be modified for lower grades)


  1. Participate in a class discussion of their ideas and opinions related to energy conserving efforts that could directly impact their school experiences
  2. Read articles related to energy costs and consumption
  3. Use computation skills to determine the economic effects of rising energy costs on average households
  4. Analyze data from a graph to determine the types of energy currently used in the U.S.
  5. Participate in a class discussion of key terms related to energy including fossil fuels, renewable and non-renewable resources, greenhouse gasses, and global warming
  6. Participate in a simulation activity and conduct research and create a project that will be used to teach others about alternative/renewable energy sources
  7. Teach classmates about a specific alternative/renewable energy source using a model, experiment, diagram, or interactive or multimedia display
  8. Participate in a class discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of using alternative energy sources



In a year when Americans experienced record high prices at the gas pumps and winter heating costs are projected to soar nearly fifty percent, consumers are looking for ways to lower their energy costs for businesses, homes, schools, and transportation. Our primary energy sources today are fossil fuels, which are being depleted at an alarming rate. According to some, if consumption continues at the current rate, the fossil fuel supply could be gone before the end of the century. In addition to the cost and supply issues, scientists have long warned of the environmental damage caused by burning fossil fuels. In short, we are at a crossroads. Americans must use and develop alternate forms of energy to help us power our homes, automobiles, and businesses into the future without destroying the Earth’s environment. Exploring the use of renewable and alternative resources is a must in today’s world.


  1. Introduce the idea of exploring alternative energy sources by asking students the following questions and allowing 2-3 minutes to discuss each one.
    • How would you feel if you were no longer able to go on school field trips or participate in extracurricular activities because of the high cost of transportation to and from these events?
    • How would you feel about attending school only four days each week knowing that you would have to attend an additional three weeks in the summer to make up for the shorter school week?
    • How would you feel about having a longer school day, attending for an additional 1-2 hours each day so that the school would only have to be open four days each week?
    • How would you feel about having fewer bus routes resulting in longer commutes for you each day?
    • How do you think your learning would be effected if you were in a classroom that was only heated to 60 or 65 degrees?
  2. Distribute and/or share the NewsHour Extra article entitled, “High Gas Prices Could Mean Cold Classrooms and Canceled Trips”. As a class, read the article and discuss what some schools are being forced to do because of the rising cost of fuel for buses and heating school buildings. Make the impact of the rising cost of gasoline and providing heat by having students complete the following equations.
    • Assume you or your parents (if you are not old enough to drive) own a car that has a 15 gallon gasoline tank. The average cost of a gallon of gasoline was $2.10 one year ago. Today, the average cost of a gallon of gasoline is $3.00. Calculate how much more it is costing you to fill your car with gas each month assuming that you fill your car once each week and there are 4 weeks in each month. Answer: $54.00 per month
    • Home heating bills typically rise during the winter because of the colder weather. This year experts predict this cost to rise up to 44% in some areas of the country. Calculate how much this increase will amount to each month if your typical home heating bill was $150 per month last winter. Answer: $66.00 each month
    • Add together the total additional expense you will incur each month based on the two math problems above. Answer: $120.00 per month
    • How will this extra expense impact you and your family?
  3. Using the chart entitled “U.S. primary energy consumption by fuel”, discuss the fact that the vast majority of U.S. energy comes from fossil fuels.  The three major forms of fossil fuels are natural gas, coal and oil. At this time, conduct a short class discussion that includes information such as:
    • What are fossil fuels?
    • How do these types of fuels contribute to the production of greenhouse gasses and global warming?
    • What do we mean when we say these types of resources are nonrenewable?
  4. Pose a question such as:
    • What are some renewable resources that can be used to generate power for vehicles, homes, schools, businesses, and manufacturing?
  5. As a class, make a list of all of the renewable resources that students can think of and record them on the board or overhead for all to see. NOTE: A list of renewable resources and related words along with their definitions appears below for use with this activity.
    • Renewable resource: natural resource that is depleted at a rate slower than the rate at which it regenerates (i.e. solar energy)
    • nonrenewable resource: resources for which there are no ways to replenish the supply (i.e. fossil fuels)
    • fossil fuels: also known as mineral fuels, they are hydrocarbon containing natural resources such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas
    • solar energy: harnessing the energy produced by sunlight
    • wind power: using the kinetic energy of the wind or wind turbines to extract the wind’s energy
    • hydropower: energy obtained from flowing water
    • geothermal energy: electricity generated by utilizing naturally occurring geological heat sources
    • hydrogen fuel cells: electrochemical cell in which the energy of a reaction between fuel, such as liquid hydrogen, and an oxidant, such as liquid oxygen, is converted into electrical energy
    • nuclear energy: energy released from the nucleus of an atom creating an nuclear reaction
    • LED: light emitting diodes: a semiconductor device that emits light using a variety of inorganic materials
    • greenhouse gasses: gaseous components of the atmosphere including carbon dioxide and ozone, among others. They contribute to the greenhouse effect
    • global warming: an increase in the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans increasing the greenhouse effect
  6. Once the list has been recorded, ask a questions such as:
    • If all of these resources are available, why aren’t they being more widely used to power our country?

    Facilitate a discussion about the reasons why renewable energy sources are not widely used. Be sure to include information about cost, reliability, and access.

  7. Now that students have a basic understanding of the difference between renewable and nonrenewable resources and some of the issues surrounding U.S. energy needs and consumption, present them with the following scenario:
    • The year is 2040 and Americans are in trouble. The world’s supply of fossil fuels is being rapidly depleted. As a result, drivers are paying $20 per gallon for gasoline, and the cost of heating and cooling homes, businesses, and schools has forced many public buildings to close because of their inability to pay for energy. Families and industry are suffering as well. Goods can’t be transported across the country, and many people must endure extreme heat and cold because energy costs are so high. Add to this the ill health of the Earth’s environment, ravaged for years by greenhouse gasses and the effects of global warming. The situation is critical. Alternative energy sources must be developed so that Americans can have reliable, efficient, environmentally friendly ways to run their cars, power their manufacturing plants, and heat and cool their businesses, schools, and homes.
  8. Go further into the simulation by telling students:
    • You and your partner are scientists who have been instructed to find ways to solve the energy crisis being faced by the U.S. You will be assigned a specific task related to solving this nationwide crisis. It will be up to you and your partner to research, design, and teach others about an alternative form of energy that can be used to safely meet the energy demands of the population without an extremely high price or further damage to the environment.
  9. Using the Project List handout, assign each pair of students a specific topic to research. Students should record their research findings on the Research Guide handout. Encourage them to visit the Web sites listed in the Online Resources section of the guide.
  10. Once research is completed, students must then create a model, experiment, diagram, or some type of interactive or multimedia type of display that they can use to teach classmates about how a specific renewable resource or new form of energy can be used to power America. Students should use their persuasive speaking skills to convince their classmates that their source of energy/power is better than the current fossil fuels being used.
  11. After all groups have presented their projects, facilitate a final class discussion about the development of alternative energy sources. Include questions such as:
    • What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of using alternative energy sources?
    • Would you consider using an alternative energy source to power your car or heat your home? Why or why not?
    • What do you think will happen if renewable alternative energy sources are not developed and used widely by the general public? Explain your answer.

Extension Activity

  1. Have students research and discuss ways that they can be actively involved in cutting their own energy consumption. Each student should create a chart describing what he/she is doing to conserve energy and should track how much energy they are saving each day or week by changing their behavior and usage patterns.
  2. Invite a panel of local energy experts to visit the classroom to discuss and show students examples of alternative energy sources that are being developed for use in the community.
  3. Hold an energy fair in the school and invite students from other classrooms or grade levels to visit a booth showcasing each pair of students and their project. Encourage students to share what they have learned about alternative and renewable energy sources with others as they look at the displays created by each pair.
  4. Create an energy awareness campaign in the school and encourage all students to learn more about energy conservation and alternative energy sources through a series of announcements, commercials, flyers, etc.

About the Author

Lisa Prososki is an independent educational consultant who taught middle school and high school social studies, English, reading, and technology courses for twelve years. Prososki has worked with PBS TeacherSource and has authored and edited many lesson plans and materials for various PBS programs over the past nine years. In addition to conducting workshops for teachers at various state and national meetings, Prososki works as an editor, creates a wide range of educational and training materials for corporate clients, and has authored one book.

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  • The Materials You Need

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    Common Core Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
    • Standard 7: Knows the physical processes that shape patterns on Earth’s surface
    • Standard 11: Understands the patterns and networks of economic interdependence on Earth’s surface
    • Standard 14: Understands how human actions modify the physical environment
    • Standard 16: Understands the changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution and importance of resources
    • Standard 18: Understands global development and environmental issues
    • Science
      Physical Science
    • Standard 9: Understands the sources and properties of energy
    • Mathematics
    • Standard 3: Uses basic and advanced procedures while performing the processes of computation
    • Language Arts
    • Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process
    • Standard 3: Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written composition
    • Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes
    • Reading
    • Standard 5: Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process
    • Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts
    • Listening and Speaking
    • Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes
    • Working with Others
    • Standard 1: Contributes to the overall effort of a group
    • Standard 4: Displays effective interpersonal communication skills

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