Energy Perspectives

What should our kids be learning about energy?

This blog post was originally published in the Calgary Herald on December 4, 2013.

Gareth Thomson is Executive Director of the Alberta Council for Environmental Education, a non-profit charity with the mission to work collaboratively to advance environmental education in Alberta.  He has twenty four experience in environmental education, and has also has taught high school, served on Canmore town council, and been a judge for the Alberta Emerald Awards. He has an engineering degree, an M.Sc. in Environmental Geology, and is a certified teacher.

Last Friday, I heard on the news about some students and parents who had signed a petition asking that teachers not use Canadian Geographic’s new Energy IQ program. They claim that this program, funded by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), spends too much time on energy demand and production, and gives short shrift to the environmental impacts of energy, such as climate change.

It got me thinking. What SHOULD our kids be learning about energy?

The Herald’s Editorial Page Editor recently told me about her kids’ school, which proposed to show ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ the Al Gore movie about climate change. When parents asked the school to also present another movie – one with a very different point of view on climate change – the school decided to show neither movie. Presumably they did something safe and non-controversial instead, like math.

Stories like this make me wild. Alberta kids should get the full meal deal when it comes to energy education. They need to increase their energy IQ and get a better handle on where our energy comes from and how it gets to their home. They need to understand the implications of our love affair with energy: that it permits our enviable lifestyle, can create serious social challenges, and impacts the environment.

Should we expose our little darlings to the challenges of environmental issues? Of course. When they look out of their school bus window they see pump jacks, or transmission lines, or perhaps just their comfortable suburban homes – all created by, or supported by, energy. And then on the evening news they’ll overhear outraged reportage about pipelines, or how bigger storms are linked to climate change, or that oil and gas production are edging sage grouse close to extinction in Alberta. Many of them will experience cognitive dissonance, the discomfort that arises when we try to hold two conflicting things in our brains: can we actually maintain this enviable energy-supported lifestyle AND simultaneously protect the environment?

They need help to figure that one out, to avoid descending into the feelings of guilt, despair, or helplessness about the environment felt by many adults. We do kids a huge disservice if we don’t let them wade into the glorious, messy world of the environmental issues that surround energy use, be it climate change, biodiversity loss, etc. They’ll soon learn that we adults don’t have all the answers – or, more to the point, we propose different answers to the questions that confront us, because we have different values that lead us to different points of view.

That’s what an issue is, and they deserve to learn it. We need to teach kids how to think, not what to think. Teachers need to introduce students to the Energy IQ program so that they may discover, like me, that there is much they don’t know about energy. In communication the medium is the message, and teachers should also get kids thinking about why the CAPP-financed program spent more time on energy than on its impacts, and create a bias-balanced lesson by teaching about climate change using some other teaching resource – and then have students think critically by looking for the bias in that resource as well.

Such lessons used to end with that most fabulous of open-ended questions: “What do YOU think?” But this is 2013, and the new Alberta curriculum finally is creating some much-valued white space to allow students to actually do something with their learning; so the last question is a new one: “What do you think – and what are you going to do about it?”

Properly done, energy education is real world learning that helps turn students into well-informed and thoughtful citizens whose actions help create the world in which they will live. This is what students want, and this is what they deserve. And here’s a bonus- education of this sort helps give Alberta the social license to operate that we’ve been looking for. 


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