Obama and Renewable-Energy Education

By Sean Cavanagh — May 29, 2009 2 min read
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President Obama, in a speech before the National Academy of Sciences last month, vowed that his administration will have federal agencies do more to inspire students to take an interest in green-energy and renewable-energy fields. The president also called for scientists to step out of their laboratories and play a stronger role in guiding students and teachers.

On the issue of urging students to take an interest in energy issues, he said:

"[T]he Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation will be launching a joint initiative to inspire tens of thousands of American students to pursue these very same careers, particularly in clean energy. It will support an educational campaign to capture the imagination of young people who can help us meet the energy challenge, and will create research opportunities for undergraduates and educational opportunities for women and minorities who too often have been underrepresented in scientific and technological fields, but are no less capable of inventing the solutions that will help us grow our economy and save our planet.”

I was curious to see more details about what the administration wants done in this area. A number of federal agencies, including the NSF, Department of Energy, and NASA, already sponsor outreach programs to K-12 students and teachers.

The NSF released a statement after Obama’s speech pledging to support “innovative technology experiences for students and teachers.” Those efforts “will assess what works and why, enable enhanced learning in the K-12 setting on topics relating to clean energy, and consider new and innovative ways to communicate the challenges and promise of clean energy,” it said. Those could include “incorporating currently popular ubiquitous social communication platforms,” and “projects to design and evaluate educational strategies and assess how to scale them up to reach large numbers of students. This will also include innovative technology experiences for students and their teachers that address how to effectively interest and prepare students to participate in the clean energy workforce of the future.”

An NSF spokesperson told me this week that this is a new effort, created in response to the president’s priorities, though at this point there is no new funding devoted to it. The agency is currently taking inventory of existing clean-energy education programs, in response to Obama’s agenda, spokeswoman Maria Zacharias said in an e-mail. The new program is being run jointly by NSF and the Department of Energy, though the science foundation’s directorate of education and human resources is taking the lead on this project.

What role can and should federal agencies play in creating classroom resources on energy topics for students? As I’ve reported, many teachers complain that scientifically reliable documents on energy and environmental topics are in short supply, so they often end up having to cull together their own. There appears to be a real hunger for “green energy” curricula and lessons in classrooms. A report released a few years ago cited a lack of coordination among federal agencies in planning and implementing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of K-12 programs. Can this new effort avoid those those pitfalls?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.