Student Poll of Energy Literacy Finds Big Gaps

By Robert Rothman — March 28, 1990 2 min read

Washington--Despite having a strong interest in energy and environmental issues, many students show substantial gaps in their knowledge of those subjects, a survey conducted by a federally sponsored energy-education group has found.

The poll of 24,247 students in grades 4-12, released here last week, found that, while most students consider themselves energy-savers, few demonstrated an understanding of the scientific and economic aspects of the subject adequate to help them as consumers.

For example, the survey found, two-thirds of the students did not know that the heating and cooling of homes uses more energy than lighting and refrigeration; only 6 percent of secondary students knew the proportion of energy demand met by renewable resources; 70 percent did not know that uranium gives off energy when atoms are split; and most thought that electricity costs substantially more than it actually does.

Teachers responding to the survey fared better than the students, with two-thirds answering the basic-knowledge questions correctly. But only half, for example, knew that the development of a 100 percent efficient machine is impossible.

“Even with increased science requirements, only a handful of schools in each state are producing truly energy-educated graduates,” said Gerald Katz, director of the National Energy Education Development Project, which conducted the survey. “Students should know and care as much about the debate over clean air as they do [about] Air Jordans.”

The NEED project, launched by Congressional resolution in 1980, is a national network of 5,000 schools aimed at integrating energy education into curricular and extracurricular activities.

In addition to releasing the survey last week, the project’s national assessment committee, chaired by Senator Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, met to consider standards for “energy literacy.” The panel’s report is expected to be distributed for comment to educators and industry and government officials in the next month. A final report is slated to be issued in the next six months.

Students’ Opinions

The survey, underwritten by oil, coal, and electric companies, also asked students’ opinions about key policy issues.

While most students said government action is necessary to promote trash recycling, only one-fourth said the government should mandate fuel-economy standards. Half of the students, however, said the government should encourage the use of cleaner-burning ethanol.

A separate survey of 2,001 educators in 100 schools found that, with the exception of science teachers, few instructors devoted much classroom time to energy education. Two-thirds of elementary-school teachers, it found, spent five hours or less a year on the topic, and most said their districts placed little or no emphasis on the subject.

For more information about the project, contact: NEED, P.O. Box 2518, Reston, Va. 22090, or call (703) 860-5029.

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 1990 edition of Education Week as Student Poll of Energy Literacy Finds Big Gaps