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Automobile Choices and Alternative Fuels

Amy Gambrill, PBS NewsHour

This is an activity in which students take the role of either a car seller or a car buyer to learn about transportation energy options. Car sellers are challenged to pitch to buyers about cars with a particular fuel type while car buyers each have a specified personal and socio-economic background that must be considered when buying a car.

Activity takes two to three 45-minute class periods. Computer access is recommended.

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Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

About Teaching the Guiding Principle
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Energy Literacy

Humans transfer and transform energy from the environment into forms useful for human endeavors.
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4.1 Humans transfer and transform energy.
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Various sources of energy are used to power human activities .
Energy decisions are influenced by environmental factors.
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5.6 Environmental factors.
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Energy decisions are influenced by several factors.
One way to manage energy resources is through conservation.
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6.2 Conserving energy.
Behavior and design affect the amount of energy used by human society.
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6.6 Behavior and design.
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Human use of energy.

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
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C) Collecting information.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.4 Environment and Society:D) Technology
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D) Technology.
3. Skills for Understanding and Addressing Environmental Issues:3.1 Skills for Analyzing and Investigating Environmental Issues:C) Identifying and evaluation alternative solutions and courses of action
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C) Identifying and evaluation alternative solutions and courses of action.

Benchmarks for Science Literacy
Learn more about the Benchmarks

Some resources are not renewable or renew very slowly. Fuels already accumulated in the earth, for instance, will become more difficult to obtain as the most readily available resources run out. How long the resources will last, however, is difficult to predict. The ultimate limit may be the prohibitive cost of obtaining them.
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When selecting fuels, it is important to consider the relative advantages and disadvantages of each fuel.
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Decisions to slow the depletion of energy resources can be made at many levels, from personal to national, and they always involve trade-offs involving economic costs and social values.
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Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • Investigate opportunities for public presentations of best sales pitches and well-reasoned purchase plans.
  • May not be as applicable for students who live in areas where few people purchase cars (i.e. large cities).
  • Educators might choose to adjust income levels in the "socio-economic background profiles" to reflect regional cost of living.
  • Educators could enrich the activity by including more instruction/learning activities related to environmental consequences of fuel choices.
  • Up-to-date source on fuel efficiency of vehicles can be found here: http://www.fueleconomy.gov.
  • You can do research on E85 refueling stations here http://www.e85refueling.com/ to determine if it would be possible to switch to ethanol to fill the tank.

About the Science

  • Students learn about alternative fuel options (bio-diesel, electric, hydrogen, compressed natural gas) as well as conventional gasoline.
  • Lots of references for educators and students are provided.
  • A good resource for connecting science learning directly to everyday life experiences.
  • Science links are current through 2008.
  • Comment from scientist: Unlike what is stated in the activity, hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles are not a research priority anymore.
  • Comment from scientist: When discussing conventional fuels be sure to distinguish between petroleum and bio-oils, which are used to produce alternative fuels.
  • Comment from scientist: Note that E85 is 85 ethanol by volume not mass – the two are different.
  • Comment from scientist: Even though hydrogen cars don’t produce any emission other than water, it is important to know that the compression of hydrogen is resource- and energy-intensive.

About the Pedagogy

  • Excellent role-playing performance assessment that demands a "forced-choice" that must be defended.
  • Alternative fuels worksheet is provided for students to record pros and cons for each fuel type.
  • Example profiles of potential buyers are provided.
  • Strongly promotes inquiry and further exploration of the topics.
  • Students may need directions from educator while gathering information.
  • Very engaging, especially for high school students who are thinking about the cars they will drive.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Well-written instructions; easy to implement.

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