Teaching Tools that Work: Energy Debate and Classroom Competition

Ben Schosek  ·  SEA Teacher Advisory Council
July 7, 2022

I teach both AP Environmental Science and Earth/Environmental Science in a coastal North Carolina school district. Many of the students that attend Topsail High School are innately drawn to the outdoors and spend most of their time on our nearby beaches. Despite our community being one that has a vested interest in protecting our environment, many students come to my classes with misconceptions about many of the topics I teach. This is often most clearly seen when I teach my AP Environmental Science students about energy resources.

While these misconceptions can be seen as hurdles to jump, I prefer to see them as opportunities to change minds and strike up debate. The Energy Unit in AP Environmental Science takes place for me during the time of the school year when “hands-on” learning is hitting a low point. Coupling this challenge with the vast amount of information that our AP students need to learn about these energy sources becomes really challenging to engage students from day to day. It’s during these units that I like to incorporate a lot of debate, discussion, and competition. The Great Energy Debate created by NEED is the best activity for the job, and I supplement that activity with lessons from Switch Classroom

The Great Energy Debate is one of those activities that, at the end of the semester, the students remember as having a big impact. Structured in the right way it can be a powerful teaching activity. I use the debate over a two day period.  

DAY ONE  is a full 90 minute class of introducing the activity, assigning groups, and gearing students up to compete in the debate in the coming days. Prior to the first day I had students complete the Switch Classroom lessons  Why We Choose the Energy We Use? and Energy Solutions and Policies to help set the focus of our debate. I chose these lessons as a foundation of the energy unit.  The two lessons do a fantastic job of explaining how energy is produced, energy availability and scarcity, as well as how politics come into play.

Afterwards, students are assigned an energy resource to research.  From here they complete the appropriate Switch Classroom assignment to get them started.  Renewable energy sources such as WindSolar, and Geothermal face off against non-renewable energy  sources like CoalNatural Gas, and Nuclear. Students are then asked to research not only the benefits of their source of energy but to find the perceived disadvantages of their opponents sources of energy.  

DAY TWO is debate day. After a brief reminder of the rules the students spend the majority of a 90 minute period (and sometimes more) trying to convince a panel of student judges which energy resource is “the best.” Each team presents the benefits of their energy source but they are also challenged by other groups regarding the disadvantages.  The job of the judges is arguably the most difficult. The fate of each  groups’ success depends on the judges’ understanding of each of the concepts and a fair and objective determination of advantages and disadvantages. The debate rages on and on but most often ends in a stalemate.

The real learning takes place in the reflection we take part in after the dust has settled. As a group we discuss questions like,  “Why is there not a clear winner?” and, “Why didn’t the renewable energy sources just take it all if they don’t harm the environment? Ultimately, as a whole class, we discuss what the landscape of our future energy resource use will look like, how important decisions will be on their shoulders, and the importance of being informed about energy from balanced sources like Switch Energy Alliance.

For me this is one of the most valuable lessons I engage my students in all year. The rewards of students teaching each other, engaging in meaningful debate about real topics, clearing up common misconceptions, and connecting the information to their own lives is worth the time invested.

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