The Value of Educating Our Youth on Energy Alternatives
June 13, 2006
The topics of energy and Alternative Fuels are pretty popular today. They are in the news every morning, receiving both good and bad press. One day you hear the President saying that Ethanol is going to help cure our “addiction to oil” and then the next day you hear that it takes farmers more petroleum to grow corn and to convert it into Ethanol (through fertilizers and transportation) than it takes to drill for oil and turn oil into gasoline. So a massive education campaign seems in order. But why bother? Are you and I really going to stop driving? Are we going to sell our gas-guzzling SUV for a car or truck that runs on Ethanol or biodiesel? If we do, where are we going to fill up? Depending on which state you live in, alternative fuel stations can be few and far between. Infrastructure, availability and variations in fuel quality are all concerns.
So, where do we find out the truth about alternative fuels and once we know the facts, who should we focus our instruction on in order to have the biggest impact? Sure, people can search the internet for information and educate themselves. But how many people will realistically do this? And once educated, will people change their behaviors for the greater good?
At the San Diego EcoCenter for Alternative Fuel Education we teach 4th-7th graders about bio-fuels and other alternatives. We focus on this age group, because they are eager to learn and have not yet become too set in their ways. Through teaching the basics of technology, chemistry, mathematics, and sociology, we enable school children to understand how their actions and decisions can lead to a cleaner environment and a less oil dependent America.
In our second year of operation, the EcoCenter can boast a long list of educational awards, as well as a near-capacity schedule of two tours every school day. These honors demonstrate that the San Diego educational community recognizes the value of this program, but what is the value for the general public or to the rest of the world?
At the EcoCenter one of the hands-on exercises has the students construct an arch of large blocks. Students see firsthand how holistic solutions are needed to our complex problems and how each component cannot stand on its own. The building of the arch, block by block, is a metaphor for creating a clean community, piece by piece. Each block is read out loud, listing actions students can take, today, to create a clean city. Students discuss why trees are good for the environment – understanding that trees “breathe in” carbon dioxide is the groundwork for an understanding of carbon sequestration. Each child chooses an action they will commit to taking, whether it is planting a tree, conserving energy, organizing a carpool, or simply walking to school instead of getting a ride. These modest lifestyle changes can have a significant impact on reducing our nation’s oil usage. Students find out what it takes to create a Hybrid vehicle and how the various components operate. By teaching students about real life technologies such as hybrids, and introducing them to concepts such as “miles per gallon” in a way that means something to them - young people who will be driving in just a few short years recognize the impact of our dependence on fossil fuels in a very personal and meaningful way. Students see how a Hybrid can be good for the environment AND their pocketbooks!
In another exercise, students enter a large maze and search for components that will make a clean vehicle. Their component choices determine what fuels their vehicle will use.. They create a report card of fuels, which both introduces the concept of alternative fuels and helps them critically evaluate those fuels based on whether or not it receives a good grade in how much it pollutes and whether or not it is renewable. In a few years, these students who will be getting or buying their own cars will be very much aware of the impacts of their buying decisions.
At the end of the day, students take the EcoMarshall pledge, vowing to clean up the air and environment and to educate others about what they learned. After students leave, we have had several parents call the EcoCenter asking where they can buy a hybrid car. Like a pebble in a pond, the number of little changes made as a result of this empowering program cannot be measured. How many students go on to convince a friend or family member to walk or bike instead of drive? How many family outings on the subway, bus, or trolley are taken instead of in the family car? How many lights are shut off when someone leaves the room? How many emails are sent to politicians or companies because of an EcoMarshall?
The value of instilling this knowledge in our youth is immense. The San Diego EcoCenter educates over 10,000 students each year. Think of the possibilities if there were a Los Angeles EcoCenter… a San Francisco EcoCenter… a Chicago EcoCenter… a New York EcoCenter… Ten EcoCenters would educate 100,000 students each year. One hundred EcoCenters would educate a million future drivers, voters, entrepreneurs, inventors, and policy-makers. That’s the value and the potential of teaching the youth of this nation and what we at the San Diego EcoCenter for Alternative Fuel Education hope to accomplish.
Alegra Marcel Bartzat
San Diego EcoCenter for Alternative Fuels