Daddy, Did you plug the hole yet?

As we all know, President Obama told the story that his daughter knocked on the bathroom door while he was shaving, and asked him, “Have you plugged the hole yet, Daddy?”

As science teachers we are reminded that this question is the kind of question our youth asks about important issues that face us today.  In today’s post on the New York Times, Thomas Friedman uses Malia’s comment suggest that this is the time to talk about energy futures.  He puts it this way:

This oil leak is not President Obama’s fault. Stopping the spill is BP’s responsibility; it both caused it and it has the best access to the best technology to plug it. Of course, as the nation’s C.E.O., Mr. Obama has to oversee the cleanup, and he has been on top of that. His most important job, though, is one he has yet to take on: shaping the long-term public reaction to the spill so that we can use it to generate the political will to break our addiction to oil. In that job, the most important thing Mr. Obama can do is react to this spill as a child would — because it is precisely that simple gut reaction, repeated over and over, speech after speech, that could change our national conversation on energy.

Friedman identifies three voices that shape the energy discussions: “petro-determinists (convince us that we can not break our addiction to oil),” “eco-pessimists (its too late to break it),” and “Obama-realists (walking lightly on a new energy plan).”   Friedman suggests that we need to think the way youth thinks, and perhaps be willing to answer questions such as these:

Answering those questions is the president’s great opportunity here, but he has to think like a kid. Kids get it. They ask: Why would we want to stay dependent on an energy source that could destroy so many birds, fish, beaches and ecosystems before the next generation has a chance to enjoy them? Why aren’t we doing more to create clean power and energy efficiency when so many others, even China, are doing so? And, Daddy, why can’t you even mention the words “carbon tax,” when the carbon we spill into the atmosphere every day is just as dangerous to our future as the crude oil that has been spilling into the gulf?

It is time to move on with a new approach to energy.

The “Two Cultures” Gap: Implications for the Issues of the Day

For the past week, or so, I have been trying to sort through the information emerging from Washington about health care, and what should be done about it.  In the Senate, the bill is known as the Affordable Health Choices Act, and in the House (HR 3200) it is called America’s Affordable Health Choices Act.  I found the summary of the house bill helpful.  But the discussions in the media have been confusing, and have revealed enormous gaps that exist between politicians and the public; between the medical community and the public; between the scientific community and the public; between politicians and science.  Then, Paul Krugman made this comment in a recent post about Obama’s recent news conference:

And there on our TVs was a president with an impressive command of the issues, who truly understands the stakes.

Health is not the only issue that at the center of national debates.  The recent passage in the House of an energy bill brings center stage another science-related issue that is crucial to America’s future.

Yet there cultural divides in America, which could be dangerous, according to a recent symposium at the New York Academy of Sciences.  Sponsored by the Academy, Science Debate, Inc., and Discover Magazine, the seminar brought together a group of scientists, journalists, inventors, professors, and teachers to hear keynote speakers, and participate in group discussions on the topic: A Dangerous Divide: The Two Cultures in the 21st Century.  The meeting coincided with the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s famous lecture, The Two Cultures.  As pointed out on the website for the meeting, Snow was talking about the cultural divide between scientists and humanists, whereas the conference focused in on the divide between the scientific community today and the general public.

At stake today is how the scientific community can contribute to the public’s understanding of science and science-related issues, and at the same time preserve its integrity.  One of the speakers at the symposium addressed this idea, and put it this way:

But even if specialization has created walls between cultures, Blair argued that science as a whole has benefited greatly from disciplinary boundaries, and that there is value in preserving them and keeping science insulated from politics. Science’s historical independence of ideology has earned it an authority that Blair argued is its most precious asset. At the same time, she suggested, “We also need to work to build bridges and communicate across those gaps… We need multiple cultures, each with recognized autonomy and authority and then bridged by individuals—specialists in education, in science writing—to help inform our public discourse.

Over the next few days we’ll explore the implications of symposium for not only the issues of the day, but for science teaching.  In the meantime, I recommend you go the symposium’s website.  There is text information, and videos of most of the symposium, as well bios on each of the participants.

Scientific Illiteracy in Our House (of Representatives)

Yes, the U.S. Congress did pass the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (H.R. 2454), but within Congress—in the House—there was clear evidence of “scientific illiteracy.”  And no, it was not the kind of thinking that we as science teachers advocate.  It turns out that one of the U.S. Representatives from Georgia, Paul Broun, who represents citizens of Georgia in Congressional District 10 (in the Athens, GA area) appears to advocate illiteracy.  During the debate on H.R. 2454, Broun stated “Scientists all over this world say that the idea of human induced global climate change is one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated out of the scientific community. It is a hoax. There is no scientific consensus.”  

These comments are not surprising from this Georgia Congressman (read about him here), but it serves to support Mooney and Kirchenbaum’s thesis of their new book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens America.  Here we have a member of Congress who denies the research on climate change, and makes false statements on the costs of the bill and how it would affect American households.  Broun needs to consider a very basic idea, and that is: “there is no such thing as a free lunch.”  Instead of doing his homework, and finding out how we have continued to get “free lunches from the Earth,” this man continues his demeanor as a denier of climate change and global warming, and serves as a poster-child for perpetuating ignorance in the face of searching for truth on one of of serious problems we face today.  Our continued greed in taking from the Earth has come home to roost as seen in the warmest years on record, the melting of ice caps, the acceleration North of climates (New Hampshire could have a climate like North Carolina) as temperatures have increased, and many other examples. 

Although his remarks received applause from some Republicans, other Representatives voted for the bill because of his incendiary and  ignorant remarks.  By the way, Broun has a medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia!

In an editorial piece entitled Betraying the Planet, Paul Krugman points out that many who voted against the bill did so because of an overall rejection of the idea of greenhouse gasses, climate change, and global warming.  As others have pointed out, these represent the “deniers,” who simply are too lazy to pursue any investigation into the knowledge that has been accumulated by scientists around the world about climate change.  Even their own government has just recently issued a report entitled Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Sciences developed by the US Climate Change Science Program.  Climate literacy—can you believe that!

Scientific illiteracy is not something to treat lightly.  Mooney and Kirshenbaum have devoted an entire book to the subject, and cite scientist’s lament about the public’s “scientific illiteracy.”  Yet when we have Representatives such as Broun as a talking head in Washington, we see that the illiteracy that appears to be rampant in society, is even more so in our House (of Representatives). 

My own experience working with youth on issues such as global warming and climate change would put to shame Rep. Broun’s ignorance of one of the greatest problems facing our citizens, not only here, but around the world.  There is more to talk about here, but that will come later this week.  I think I want to listen to a baseball game!

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.

The Next President’s Energy Manifesto: An STS Project for Students

In an interview on late-night television, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. outlined an energy manifesto for the next President of the United States.  His comments, which were based on an article he published in Vanity Fair provide the nucleus for an potential STS investigation for our students.  Indeed, if carried out in the early Fall semester, the investigation would enable students to participate in an important aspect of the Presidential Election.

In the article, entitled The Next President’s First Task (A Manifesto), Kennedy directs in his “letter” to the President, that we as a nation (and a world) should move toward a decarbonized economy, and that the electrical power grid of the U.S. needs to be revamped so that all sources of energy can deliver their power, e.g. solar, wind, geothermal, and others.  Right now, the electrical grid is not fully integrated, and unlike the telecommunication’s which was required by law to fully accessible.  The result of this law led to the the explosion of telecom activities.  

For example, the electrical power grid of the U.S., as shown in the map below, indicates that energy can not be moved from some regions (look at Texas), to other parts of the nation.  Why is this an issue?  Suppose, Texas developed its wind energy resource such that it was able to generate electricity not only for Texas, but for the other regions of the U.S.  Changing this will require new laws to revamp the present energy grid, but to open it up to all suppliers of energy.  

Kennedy cites two examples of countries that have “decarbonized” their economies, Sweden and Iceland.  In the case of Sweden, the government initiated a phase out of all fossil fuels by 2020 resulting in the acceleration of innovation in alternative energy sources.  In the case of Iceland, Kennedy points out that Iceland, one of the poorest countries in Europe moved to “energy-independence” by moving away from fossil fuels and developed its geothermal potential.  Iceland is now the fourth most affluent nation on Earth.  These examples are worth investigation by students as models of how a nation moved away from a reliance on fossil fuel energy to alternatives.

What can our students learn from the experiences in these two cases, and how can knowledge about energy, and how it is produced and distributed help in addressing the current crisis that the world faces today?