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Cuts in Federal Support Jeopardize Energy-Education Programs

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Detroit--Programs designed to promote energy awareness among elementary- and secondary-school students could face extinction if state governments and the private sector fail to fill the budget gap created by cuts in federal spending for education.

That was the assessment of several energy-education project directors attending the first National Conference on Energy Education held here recently. The unusual gathering of energy educators from across the country was actually a "conference-within-a-conference" organized as part of the annual meeting of the National Council for the Social Studies. It was co-sponsored by the social-studies organization and the National Science Teachers Association (nsta).

"The future of federal financing of energy-education programs looks rather bleak," said John M. Fowler, director of the nsta's Project for an Energy-Enriched Curriculum. "The energy-education division of the Department of Energy (doe) never did have a lot to work with, and by all indications, it won't have anything at all next year."

Donald D. Duggan, chief of education programs in the office of energy research of doe, was even more blunt in his assessment of his office's future.

"I think this program is going to go down the tube," Mr. Duggan said in an interview in Washington. "It's all but certain that it will be discontinued. We're just hoping that the states will decide to fund the programs themselves."

In fiscal year 1981, Congress appropriated $5 million for doe-sponsored energy education programs. That amount was slashed to $1.7 million for the current fiscal year, Mr. Duggan said, and funding is questionable at best.

Those cuts will place "a very large strain" on energy-education efforts in the states, according to Edie M. Petrock, director of the Education Commission of the States' energy-education project.

"As it stands right now, many state energy offices receive as much as 80 percent of their education funds from the federal government," she explained. "We've been working closely with seven states and have found that many of their energy offices have already started scaling down operations. The states are suffering from fiscal crises of their own, so it's highly unlikely that they'll be able to kick in to any substantial degree."

According to Ms. Petrock, energy education seemed to be an emerging priority at the state level a few years ago because the economic fallout of the 1973 Arab oil embargo was still fresh in many people's minds.

"But recently we've seen a growing sense of complacency among the public, a general impression that we no longer have an energy problem," she said. "That, combined with growing support for the back-to-basics movement, has drawn a lot of state support away from energy education."

The only likely source of funding for future energy education programs is industry, Ms. Petrock said.

"We're seeing a tremendous amount of support from the private sector," she explained. "But their involvement raises some serious questions, perhaps the most important being the degree to which their materials are objective. Many energy companies are being very responsible. They've put out very good materials and have worked closely with educators while developing them. On the other hand, I've seen materials that haven't been all that objective."

Mr. Fowler, however, said he doubted that industry would abuse the responsibility of educating children about energy-related matters.

"I think that within the last five years the energy companies have come to realize that there's a difference between educating and propagandizing, and that if they want to reach students, they are going to have to choose education," he explained. "That's the route that say that they are taking, and I believe they mean it when they say 'We're willing to take the risk of an educated community, and if an argument ensues, at least it will be from an educated point of view."'

Ms. Petrock said a related problem is the degree to which educators can put industry-produced materials to use in their classrooms. "The government served as a coordinating body in that it pulled together energy-related material of all sorts," she said. Those materials, she said, were designed so that they could be infused without much difficulty into existing curricula.

"Now, teachers are confronted with a situation where there are countless sources of information, much of which would be difficult, if not impossible, to integrate into their lessons," she added. "Pulling all of that material into a useable form takes a lot of time and effort, and the burden of doing that is going to fall on teachers."

Ms. Petrock predicted there would be a short-term decline in interest in energy education, but she said interest would pick up again should the nation's energy supplies be disrupted.

"Energy education is nothing new, it has always been a part of science and social-studies curricula," she said.

"The biggest problem facing it right now is that during the last few years it has gained the false status of being something new, something faddish. And many people wouldn't be concerned about the passing of something that they thought was just another fad. I just hope they don't throw the baby out with the bath water."

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