From Oil to Wind: An STS Project

Teaching students about the Earth’s energy future is an important goal of science education.  In the news these days is the debate (because of $4+ gas in the US) about off shore drilling, energy independence (an oxymoron?), wind and other alternative energies.  How should these ideas be approached with students?  What questions should students raise to explore these ideas?  What follows are some comments about ideas by T. Boone Pickens, Robert F. Kennedy Jr, and Thomas L. Friedman about energy.  How might these ideas be incorporated in an STS Project or series of lessons on energy?

Yesterday, a wealthy Texas oilman, T. Boone Pickens announced his mission to move America away from it dependency on oil to others forms of energy, in particular wind and natural gas–in short to “supplant oil with wind.”  He’s launched a multimillion dollar ad campaign that will stretch beyond the U.S. Presidential campaign, and in his mind, influence the debate on energy during the campaigns.  His plan is briefly described in the video below.

In an earlier blog entry I wrote about Robert F. Kennedy’s ideas to decarbonize the economy of the U.S. by moving the U.S. toward alternative energy sources, especially wind power.  As Kennedy and others have pointed out, the electrical grid is unable to move energy freely throughout the U.S. at this time, and they have suggested that the infrastructure of the electrical grid needs to be revamped.  In fact, if Pickens’ plan of wind generators is implemented, a revamping would be needed to connect Texas with other grids.  See the map below.

USA Energy Grid

So here we have Robert F. Kennedy, a liberal democrat, and T. Boone Pickens, a conservative Republican thinking out-of-the box by calling for the decarbonization of the US economy.  If one looks further, Kennedy and Pickens are calling for not only the reduction of oil imported, but also the future possibility of running cars on “fuels” other can oil.  Natural gas cars, hybrids, electrical cars, and hydrogen cars.  On a recent trip to California I listed to a TV report on the opening of the first full service hydrogen fueling station for cars.  And a number of people drive around in cars fueled with natural gas (clearner) or electricity.

Both of these individuals are against additional drilling of oil off the U.S. coasts and in Alaska.  This is in sharp contrast to what many others are suggesting.  They (including the President, Candidate McCain, and many in Congress) suggest that to lessen America’s dependence on oil, increase the amount that American oil companies extract from the Permian rocks, refine it, and sell it to American drivers.  That’s the plan.  Problem is that additional oil will be sold to Japan, India or China, and it would be years before new explorations led to oil out of the ground.   So the net effect will be to increase dependency on imported oil, if no other changes were implemented, during this period.

Enter a third and interesting voice.  Thomas Friedman.  On June 22, Friedman wrote an Op-Ed column in the New York Times entitled “Mr. Bush, Lead or Leave.”  What Friedman was talking about was that two years ago Mr. Bush declared American was “addicted to oil,” and now the President is suggested that will drill off the coasts, and as Friedman puts it, “Get more addicted to oil.”  Friedman even goes on to call the President, “our addict-in-chief.”

Now along comes Pickens who is saying no new drilling.  Shift to wind for many of energy needs, and move cars away from oil to toward natural gas.  The question arises about the viability of natural gas as real alternative to oil for cars.  In Europe, natural gas has become more popular as an alternative, and indeed car manufacturers are running cars off the assembly line, and natural gas industry is making natural gas more available to car owners.  Hundreds of natural gas fueling stations have opened in Europe.

Students need to be involved in this debate.  It is not a matter of telling students, but enabling them to investigate the issue of energy, and what changes governments and societies need to make.  Some advocate a “green new deal” (Thomas Friedman), and students might want to read and watch videos of Friedman.  There are many other resources to help students to explore the important step that societies need to take for a green energy future.  Here are a few.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.