Energy Lab Guide for Educators

For discussion questions and lesson plans, go to the Energy Lab collection on PBS LearningMedia.

The individual components of the Energy Lab give you a range of options for integrating some or all of the Lab into your instruction. From homework enrichment, to science fair project, to a week-long lesson module, the flexibility of the Energy Lab components will help you address the topics of energy, Earth’s systems, technology, engineering, and scientific modeling with your middle school or high school students. Below are details of the Lab components and some strategies to get you started.    

Research Challenge

The Research Challenge allows students to design their own renewable energy systems to generate power. Students can create virtual wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass systems to provide reliable power to real cities, from Tennessee to California. Students will use maps, graphs, and weather data to assess the energy potential of each geographic location and design their system to meet production targets based on resident demand. Students will then test their model against actual historical and real-time weather and solar data and work to update and optimize their systems based on this feedback. To support your students in the research challenge, you might use some of these strategies:

  • Ask students before they begin about how they might plan and design their own systems totake advantage of local renewable energy sources. Talk as a group about theimportant variables to consider (region, weather, energy demand, cost, etc).
  • Ask students to discuss what success would look like for a system in a particular location. Isit generating the most power? It is saving the most money? Assign students orsmall teams to compete with each other in the same city/region to design the “best”system based on their criteria for success.
  • Compare and contrast the challenges and benefits of using renewable energy in large andsmall cities, and in different regions of the country.
  • As the real-time data continues to update, check back in with the Energy Lab after all the challenges are complete to compare the power outputs of student-designedsystems at various times of day and seasons of the year.
  • Have students research what types of renewable energy resources are available andused in their own city or region. If your local power company uses anyof these renewable energy resources, consider taking a field trip to one of these power generation stations.

Video Library  

The Energy Lab includes a collection of eight short videos that cover basic energy topics. Videos include contextual information explaining why these topics matter to students and society. These videos will help students with concepts that they will face in the Research Challenge, but can also be used for individual exploration of key topics in energy and power. The collection is organized into three main “lessons”—each with its own set of brief and engaging videos and assessment questions that cover key areas of energy research: consumptionproduction, and distribution. Students can track their progress through these lessons and record their answers and notes in a customized, printable Lab Report that you can collect and use for assessment purposes. 

Strategies for using the video library include:

  • Work through one or more of the video lessons with your class. Watch the videos andhave students answer all of the questions. When finished, have your students printout their answers and notes, and facilitate a discussion about what they found most interestingand surprising.
  • Have students make energy concept maps based on the topics and ideasaddressed in the videos.
  • Use a single video from the collection to enhance a preexisting lesson plan. 

You can go directly to any of the Energy Lab videos using these links:

  • Growing Appetites, Limited Resources – explores the impacts of energy use, the issue of dwindling resources, and the need for alternatives.
  • Energy Defined – covers the basics of this abstract property, what energy is, how it's conserved, and what makes some forms more useful than others.
  • Putting Energy to Use  – explains that making use of energy often involves converting it into other forms.
  • A Never-Ending Supply – explains what makes a renewable a renewable and explores some of the more promising alternative energy sources available.
  • Solar Power – covers the basics of capturing the enduring energy of the Sun and converting it into other forms, especially electrical energy.
  • Wind Power – explains how wind can be captured and transformed into electrical energy and explores some of the challenges of using wind to power cities.
  • Solving the Storage Problem – explores the need for storage, namely the intermittent nature of many renewable resources and explains why this is not an easy problem to solve.
  • Toward a Smarter Grid – looks at the state of the current electric power grid and explains how making the grid "smarter" will make it both more reliable and more efficient.

The Scientists  

The Energy Lab will periodically have scientists and engineers available to engage with you in the classroom and to answer students’ questions about topics related to energy. By interacting with professionals who are active in this field, students will have the chance to connect with careers in science and engineering surrounding the future of energy technology. Check the calendar of events on the NOVA Labs Facebook Page to see who is available—and then ask away!    

  • Work with your class to compile a list of questions to ask the featured scientist. Submit your questions online as a class.
  • Ask students to discuss the types of skills they might need to become a scientist in the energy field.

The Energy Lab Standards Alignment

To see how different parts of the Energy Lab can be used to meet your course objectives, download a standards alignment here:

Energy Lab Standards Alignment (62.6 KB)

As new activities and lessons become available, we will include them in the NOVA Education Blog: Engaging Science.

Kids celebrating at NREL Science Bowl
NREL Science Bowl

Image courtesy of NREL


Related Resources

Below are more resources from NOVA and other organizations to enhance your lessons about energy.

  • NOVA’s Power Surge – In this NOVA program, experts tackle the question: Can emerging technology defeat global warming? Learn how the United States has invested tens of billions of dollars in the search for sustainable energy sources.
  • Smart Grid – In this segment from NOVA scienceNOW, learn how electricity travels from its source to your light switch, and hear from scientists and engineers who think a "smarter" grid is the key to more reliable and efficient energy distribution. 
  • PBS LearningMedia Energy Resources – Visit this free online digital media service from PBS for a variety of multimedia resources about energy. From interactives to teacher videos, there’s sure to be something here you can use to improve a lesson about energy. Here are just a few examples: Inside a Solar Cell New Ways to Catch RaysCapturing Renewable Energy, and Energy Sources.
  • Energy Kids – This teacher guide provides energy lessons that use the “Energy Kids” website as a resource. The guide provides language arts, math, performing arts, science, and social studies extension activities for all ages.
  • Energy Education K-12 Lesson Plans – Teach your students the importance of green energy while enhancing your curriculum. Here you'll find many creative lesson plans, labs, projects, and other activities for grades K–12 on energy-related topics.
  • Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network – The CLEAN project, a part of the National Science Digital Library, provides a collection of carefully reviewed resources, coupled with the tools to enable an online community built around the teaching of climate and energy science.