Curriculum & Planning, Middle School, Science

Energy Education Resources: Citizen Power

While my sixth graders are busy learning about our local watershed, my fifth graders are looking at energy.  I love authentic learning  — opportunities where students can feel like they are having a real impact and making a real difference — so when I began planning my science units, I tried to select a topic that would tie many areas of science together and would also provide an opportunity for students to engage in a service learning or “citizen science” activities.  Energy is a perfect match for those goals.

First, the issue of energy is so relevant to today — the decisions we make today on the issues of national security, energy independence, and the dangers posed by climate change will literally shape the future of our planet.  Second, everyone uses energy, and it is within our power to impact our use of energy.  Finally, the broad topic of energy connects to so many different areas in the field of science — from the physical science areas of matter, atoms, molecules and (of course) energy, to the earth science topics of natural resources and their formation, weather and climate, and finally to life science themes like how changing climates will affect life on earth.  Energy is the perfect topic to tie all of these areas together.

With a topic settled on, I just needed that exciting activity to make the learning worthwhile — to add an application of this knowledge, to make it authentic.  I settled on having my students conduct an energy audit of our school.  As a culminating activity, they will submit their recommendations regarding energy use and future energy decisions to the school, providing a rationale for each recommendation.  Yes, this is pretty hefty work for fifth graders, but with support and scaffolding, I know they can do it, and I know they can produce something they can be proud of.

So… As I began to look for resources to assist me in building this unit and tying these diverse areas together (the textbook wasn’t much help at this point), I discovered a binder from an organization called Citizen Power in my predecessor’s cupboards (retiring teachers leave behind the best stuff!).  After a few phone calls, I was delighted to find that not only was the organization still active, they were offering a professional development workshop in my area designed to familiarize teachers with renewable energy and energy-efficiency technologies (like a watts meter and LED lights!).  With the approval of my principal to play hooky for the day, I was able to attend!

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We learned about how solar and wind energy works and also practiced conducting an energy audit.  Citizen Power has a tool bag teachers can sign out that includes a digital infrared thermometer (to identify thermal leaks and such stuff), a digital thermometer pen (to measure air temperature), digital hygrometer pen (measures humidity), light meter, flicker checker (determines efficiency of fluorescent ballasts), and a watt meter that determines how many watts appliances are sucking out!  My students will use tools like these when it comes time to conduct our own energy audit.

We also looked at a tool scientists use when decided where to place solar panels.  They called it a Solar Pathfinder – there are also electronic versions.  Basically, the numbers and lines on it show when that area will have direct sunlight — down to the hour — for the entire year.

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Finally, we got to see solar energy produced with this mobile monocrystalline photovoltaic panel.

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In addition to all these nifty activities, I got to take a goody bag home!  They generously gave all the teachers a flicker checker, LED bulb, solar power windmill kit, wind power turbine kit, a DVD about renewable energy, and a book about home energy audits.  That is quite a haul for a FREE workshop!!!

Anyway, I am looking forward to working with Citizen Power, along with a few other community organizations like Asbury Woods Nature Center and environmentERIE, as my fifth graders begin explorations in energy.  Stay tuned for more exciting news!!!

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Curriculum & Planning, Science

Watershed Monitoring with Creek Connections

The fifth and sixth grade science curriculum at my school has traditionally been taught on a four quarter basis, one quarter dedicated to meeting the standards for life science, earth science, physical science, and health, respectively.  While health is tacked on at the end with a separate book, our science textbook is neatly divided into those categories: life, earth and physical science.

I can’t exactly say why, and I am certainly not prepared to debate their merits or lack of, but I really don’t like textbooks.  I think they are boring, and I don’t like how they are written.  They use a lot of words to say very little, and I think my students can handle a lot more information than they give. And they’re just boring.

So, determined to make a lot of extra work for myself, I decided I would arrange my curriculum differently. Instead of working our way topic to topic like they aren’t completely and totally interrelated, my fifth and sixth graders are following an environmental theme that (the goal is) will tie all of these interrelated concepts together.

My sixth graders’ theme is watersheds, and I am using a study of our local watershed to look at everything from how the land was formed to stream macroinvertebrates.  But I wanted them to do more than just learn about watersheds – I wanted them to do something or somehow contribute to our community.  Authentic learning experiences and the idea that you are making a difference, that what you are doing matters — that’s important to adolescents.  To reach this goal, I teamed up with Allegheny College’s Creek Connections program to engage my kids in a year-long watershed monitoring project.

First, students from Allegheny College came to our school and taught my students the water chemistry tests they would use to evaluate watershed quality.

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Then, we took our first trip to the creek to look at the physical characteristics of the stream and see what macroinvertebrates we could dig up!

We are wrapping up our first unit, which looked at the water cycle and watersheds, and then we will be moving on to looking at the geological processes that created our watershed!  We will continue to collect data about our creek throughout the year, and students will be starting small group research projects on watershed topics after the Thanksgiving holiday.

So far, the kids seem happy with science class this year.  I am just hoping I cover the standards in our curriculum enough to keep everyone satisfied… Wish me luck!