By. Kelly Chadesh, eighth-grade science teacher, Glacier Creek Middle School
Some of the most exciting moments that happen in a classroom take place when the teacher takes a step back and the students become the teachers. When students take the lead and feel passionate about the material they are covering, a great deal of authentic learning takes place. For my eighth-graders at Glacier Creek Middle School in Cross Plains, Wisconsin, that’s exactly what happens during the Annual Alternative Energy Fair.
As the daughter of an environmental engineer, I have always felt a great responsibility for the world around me. As an Earth Science educator, my goal for my students is for them to cultivate an awareness for the changing world around them. At the start of the school year, we learn about long-term changes that have taken place over the past 4.56 billion years. We learn that while we can’t always witness these changes, we can make observations and find clues that they have taken place.
Our Fossil Fuel and Alternative Energy conversations begin when we look closer at the carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere. One of the major skills we focus on over the course of the year is pattern recognition, and using NASA’s Climate Change resources [i] we identify some very alarming trends. Upon confirming the causes for these trends, we look at what can be done to slow down the observed effects of climate change.
Our first step in preparing for this project is for each student to accept personal accountability for their contribution toward climate change. The students are asked to determine their carbon footprint by answering questions about their daily routine. By the end of the survey, students find out the answer to the following two questions: 1) “If everyone lived like you, how many Earths would we need?” and 2) “How many acres of land would we need to support your lifestyle?” Once the results are calculated, there is a sea of surprised faces looking back at me. Students realize they are contributing to climate change and they need to make some changes.
The prompt for the Energy Fair is as follows: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has issued a warning that all fossil fuels will be banned as of January 1st the following year. The students are now environmental specialists, and they are tasked with finding the best replacements for coal, natural gas, and oil. While some groups will focus on ways to generate electricity for their homes and school, others focus on alternative fuels and forms of transportation. Once the groups have reviewed all the possible alternative renewable options that are currently available, they choose one option to research and present. Selections from the past year included: Solar, Geothermal, Biomass, Wind, Hydropower, Wave, and Tidal Power, as well as Electric Cars and Hydrogen Fuel Cells.
In preparation for the Energy Fair, each group spends two weeks researching and preparing their Energy “Booth.” They research how each method of alternative energy/transportation works, find specific examples of where it’s currently in action, determine pros and cons, and develop a three-dimensional model for their booth. Students use tri-fold posters to display their information, as well as banners, pamphlets, videos, online presentations, and more to enhance their message to our visitors. They are essentially allowed to use anything that fits in their team’s designated area. Finally, they prepare speeches that run two to three minutes in length and create demonstrations or interactive elements to engage their listeners.
There is also an element of competition to make the fair a little livelier. As the facilitator of the Energy Fair, I send an invitation to the Glacier Creek staff and select four to five classes of fifth- to eighth-graders to attend each of my five classes. Each student or adult visitor is given a $1,000,000 investment ticket when they enter the classroom. They meander from group to group, listening to the presentations the students have prepared. After observing each proposal, they award their investment to the group they feel has the best overall product.
When the big day arrives, there is a lot of excitement in the air. As an educator, it is my favorite day of the year! My students are engaged from the moment they enter the room, to the moment they leave. They are proud of the work that they have accomplished, and they really feel like they are making a difference by educating their peers. From time to time, it gets a little competitive between rival groups, but the passion for sharing their research is evident.
Once the final visitors leave, my eighth-graders excitedly discuss their interactions with their peers. They each take turns as investors and vote for a product in the room (not their own, of course). We discuss how we would respond if this project prompt was a reality, and how we would see our lives changing. Most students feel their families could adapt to being fossil fuel free!
The feedback has been great since students are given the option to present and learn about something that they find intriguing. There is also genuine research taking place because the students find value in identifying a solution to a very real problem. Everyone in my block finds a way to contribute in this project. The collaboration and communication skills that are developed over the course of those two weeks are very inspiring to observe. All in all, I feel that my students not only become better scientists through this project but also become more confident learners.
Kelly Chadesh is an eighth-grade science teacher at Glacier Creek Middle School in Cross, Plains Wisconsin. Kelly is passionate in sharing her love of science with her students, and in creating opportunities for students to feel connected with the world around them. She enjoys coaching her high school swimming and soccer teams, as well as spending time with her husband and beloved puppy Lucy.
[i] Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://climate.nasa.gov/