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August 8, 2017

Lesson Plan: How inventions that use renewable energy help protect the environment

Picture your nearest river or lake. How do people use it? Are you happy with the way it is treated and its relationship to your community? In some areas, sources of water are being used as enormous batteries to help supply power to thousands of homes, schools and businesses.

This PBS NewsHour lesson lets students explore inventions that use the power of water. Students will then sketch, model or build an invention that uses renewable energy and also helps protect the environment.


Middle and high school


Physical Science, Earth Science, Environmental Science

Estimated time

Two 50-minute periods


Internet access

Computer with LCD projector and speakers or student devices

Whiteboard/poster board and markers for each team

Student journals


PBS NewsHour video: How drinking water pipes can also deliver electric power

PBS NewsHour online: Oregon to transform lakes into batteries to charge electricity grid

PBS Learning Media: Hoover Dam and Hydroelectricity Power


The pumped storage hydroelectric system is an older invention that’s getting a new innovative look. Back in the 1960s to 1980s, pumped storage hydroelectricity accounted for around 90 percent of the energy storage in the United States. These storage facilities were mainly built and used alongside nuclear power plants. But as nuclear power became less popular, so did large pumped storage projects.

With the intense push for alternative and renewable forms of energy production, pumped storage hydroelectricity is making a comeback. While solar and wind power are popular sources of energy and big business, what happens when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing? How could you store excess energy to use on a rainy day?


The purpose of this NewsHour lesson is to expose students to a set of inventions that generate electricity including hydroelectric power and renewable energy sources. Students will then design their own sketch, model or prototype of an invention that uses renewable energy suitable to the communities in which they live. They will present their findings to the class who will help decide if the invention is something that scientists, lawmakers and other thought leaders should consider supporting.

Essential Question

How could inventions that use renewable energy help protect your community’s environment?


Warm-up activity
  1. Use the whiteboard or poster board to have teams of two to four students brainstorm ways that electricity can be generated using renewable and non-renewable resources. Have students report their responses to the class.
    • Next, ask your students if they know the names of the inventors who came up with the idea for these sources of electricity. How could they find out? What problem were the inventors trying to solve?
      • What other steps are involved in turning an idea for an invention into a finished product? Regarding the inventions that students came up with above, what innovations or improvements were made to those inventions?
    • Make some personal connections for your students by asking them: Where does your water supply come from in your community? Where is your electricity produced and how? Ask them if they’ve ever heard of hydroelectricity or what the term might involve.
      • If students are unsure where their water comes from, ask them to speak with their family about it as a mini-homework assignment. Report back the results the next day!

Main activities

  1. Students should read the PBS NewsHour article Oregon to transform lakes into batteries to charge electricity grid with a partner—ask students to jot down two bullet points for each bold-headed section on what information struck them as interesting and important.
    • Have the pairs of students then jot down notes to these two questions:
      • Why is it important to store electricity for later use?
      • Would it be possible to build a pumped-storage plan here in our community ore region? Explain your answer.
    • Next, students should listen to the audio link in the story for a clear, brief explanation of pumped storage hydroelectricity. Students should add to their notes, writing down important points that were new from the text piece they read.
  2. Renewable energy activity
    • Ask students to think about the landscape where they live. What would be a fitting means of renewable energy? What forms of renewable energy would not work well?
    • Have students work with the same partner to write a one-page renewable energy plan for their community or surrounding area which includes an invention that uses renewable energy that is not already a part of the community’s current electricity plan.
    • Decide beforehand or give students the option to sketch, model or build a prototype of their invention.
      • Sketches of these inventions are more than suitable for this project; groups should use poster board(s) and drawing supplies to draft out how their energy source works. However, if time allows, and you have access to supplies, have your students create a model or prototype of the renewable energy source.
      • Another option is to ask students to include a sketch, model or prototype of the new landscape with the renewable energy source included.
    • Groups should present their sketch, model or prototype to the class and take questions about their invention based on the list of elements above. Students should decide as a class whether or not the invention is something that scientists, lawmakers and other thought leaders would consider supporting.
      • We would love to hear how you used this project in your class! Tag #PBSInvention and @NewsHourExtra and send any images of your students’ business plans along with sketches, models or prototypes of their inventions. We’d also love pictures of you using this lesson in your class. We will retweet and put up on our Facebook account…plus, we will send you a PBS NewsHour Extra stress ball and a PBS thumb drive!

Extension Activities

Ask students to research a hydroelectric system and write a proposal to test the system in their community.

  • Show the PBS Learning Media clip on The Hoover Dam and Hydroelectric Power.
    • Have students take two column notes on what they saw as the key ideas in the video. Show the video a second time, if needed, and ask students to share their notes.

Eric Strommer teaches middle school in Flint, Michigan. He wrote this PBS NewsHour Teachers’ Lounge post about the water crisis in Flint, which heavily impacts schools.

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      Next Generation Science Standards

      MS-ESS3-3. Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment.

      HS-PS3-3. Design, build, and refine a device that works within given constraints to convert one form of energy into another form of energy.

      HS-ESS3-2. Evaluate competing design solutions for developing, managing, and utilizing energy and mineral resources based on cost-benefit ratios

      HS-ESS3-4. Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems

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