Energy Resources: Considering the Sustainability of Past, Present, and Future Resource Consumption

Molly Lawrence and Max Bronsema, Western Washington University


The "Energy Resources" lesson is designed to allow high school social studies students to interact with the dominant fuels of the Industrial Revolution and in the present while considering potential energy resources of the future. Throughout, students will consider the degree to which energy resources are/were sustainable. By focusing on the case of the discovery and utilization of coal as a power source prior to and during the Industrial Revolution, students will begin to understand the way in which, over time, resource consumption has and has not been sustainable. Extrapolating the patterns of the Industrial Revolution to the present and future will result in opportunities for students to engage in drawing parallels and connections to the sustainability of resource consumption.

Learning Goals

The "big ideas" underlying this lesson include resource distribution and consumption as well as sustainability. By focusing on the case of the discovery and utilization of coal as a power source prior to and during the Industrial Revolution, students will begin to understand the way in which, over time, resource consumption has and has not been sustainable.

Context for Use

This teaching-and-learning activity is to be used when introducing the idea of resource consumption and distribution. The purpose of the activity is to design experiences in which students consider the vast amount of past and present energy resources in the world, their distribution, as well as the sustainability of their use.

Timeframe:Energy Resources is to be used over the course of the first few days at the beginning of a unit. This group of in-class activities will take approximately 90-180 minutes.

Possible Uses in Other Courses: I believe this activity may be effective in geography, social studies, ecological economics, or conservation courses with minor modifications.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Assignment

The culminating assignment for this set of activities is for students to make a decision as a high ranking governmental official of Bolivia regarding what the nation should do with their tremendous lithium reserves in light of international pressure to allow outsiders to mine these resources in order to produce solar and electric vehicles. Principles of resource distribution, resource consumption, and sustainability lie at the heart of this culminating assignment.

The Learning Activities

Intro Task: On an "intro-slip" students begin by answering the question, "What do you know about coal?" Also, include five emotional "response words" or pictures that represent your feelings about coal. This allows the teacher to better understand students' knowledge of coal as a resource along with their general perspectives on our coal consumption.

(An intro-slip is a half sheet of paper, scraps work too, that the students complete before a lesson begins.)

Storied Decision Making: The teacher prefaces the next activity by asking the students to relinquish all the emotions and knowledge of coal that they just wrote down. The teacher then tells students a story in which they are asked to put themselves into the role of a king or queen that has discovered a tremendous energy resource, coal, within and just outside of their country. This country has started running out of wood, their former primary source of cooking and heating energy, and desperately needs a new source of energy as forests are depleted and people don't have enough energy to cook or warm their homes. In addition to a sizable deposit of coal in the king/queen's nation, there are also sizable deposits in surrounding nations that are considerably less powerful than the king/queen's nation. After hearing a version of this story, students work to decide within their groups what their nation should do in response to this new resource. Convey to students that you'd like them to consider the following factors when making their decision.

  • How soon should it be used and why?
  • What sort of regulations, if any, should be put in place regarding coal burning?
  • Will you allow people in your country to burn as much coal as they want in order to live more comfortably? Why or why not?
  • Should there be multiple years of safety testing prior to allowing anyone to burn coal?
  • Should they find ways to gain control over surrounding nations that have more of this resource but don't yet realize its utility, which will allow the king/queen's nation to enjoy more comfortable lives?
  • What other considerations came into play in your decision-making?
After reaching a decision along with a thorough rationale for this decision, students will create a quick skit in which they complete the story told at the beginning of class based on their decision and the reasons for it. Their skit should depict "a day in the life" after their decisions are implemented. After students have approximately 10-15 minutes to discuss, they will have 10-15 minutes to create their skit. Ultimately, these will be shared with the entire class. While their peers are acting out skits, ask the rest of students in the class to identify in the peers' group skit one long term outcome that will likely result from the decision were very little to change about this decision for the next 100 years.

Upon completion of the skit facilitate a class discussion. The following questions can serve as guides for the discussion as they will recur throughout the unit introduction:
  • Which of the following decisions were going to benefit the most people in your country over the short term? How do you know? Explain your reasoning or experiences you've had that help you justify your answer.
  • Which of the following decisions were likely to benefit the nation as a whole over the long run? How do you know? Explain your reasoning or experiences you've had that help you justify your answer.
  • Which of the following decisions were likely to benefit the world as a whole over the long run? Explain your reasoning or experiences you've had that help you justify your answer.
  • Would it have been better to think about other nations than your own in making your decision, or to think primarily of your own interests? Explain your reasoning.
  • Were any of the decisions made about what to do with the coal really sustainable? Why or why not?

Mapping the Distribution of Coal Prior to the Industrial Revolution & Considering the Implications for Today

The teacher passes out samples of coal and peat moss to examine. This gives everyone the opportunity to understand what it is that powered the Industrial Revolution. Students receive maps and colored pencils and a chart of the known locations of coal during the Industrial Revolution. They plot the locations and quantities and discuss how the distribution of coal may have influenced the state of the world today as well as what evidence they have today that helps them predict what decisions nations made prior to the Industrial Revolution when faced with the same challenges they faced in the previous story. After a whole-class discussion around what they are noticing in their maps and what this can tell them about decisions made in the past, students will be asked to read a section of the text on the Industrial Revolution. They will read to further examine any factors that were influential in resource acquisition and decision-making prior to the Industrial Revolution as well as the consequences of these decisions in various nations throughout the Industrial Revolution and years later.

Re-Storying Our Past: Within this activity the students work on developing their concept of sustainable and fair energy use by engaging in the following authentic decision-making task, which serves as the formal assessment for this segment of activities:

You are the President of Bolivia, a country rich in lithium, a resource essential to the production of solar and electric vehicles. Read the following article to get up to speed on how you feel about the lithium in your country and who else is interested in it:

Your task, then, is to use what you've learned about resource distribution, consumption, and sustainability prior to, during, and after the Industrial Revolution to communicate a message to the international community (especially those nations most interested in acquiring your lithium resources) about what you plan to do and why. You should incorporate information and ideas from all three activities prior to this task to support your decision and help inform the decision you make. You may decide to communicate this message in a public speech, in a written memorandum to the nations who have been trying to gain access to your lithium, in a conversation you have with one of your nation's esteemed journalists, or via a song written by one of your nation's most renowned song-writers.

Brainstorm Activity Extension to Re-Storying Our Past: To tie the lithium in to the particular bioregion of your students ask them to brainstorm a list of lithium uses in your bioregion. Lithium is currently used in many devices from cell phones, laptop batteries, and Nintendo DS's. Provide your students with URL's to explore the uses of lithium in medicine, communication, computer, and other sectors of society that are located in your community.

Coal Production Chart (Microsoft Word 64kB Oct24 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The coal and peat moss has potential to be messy so be aware of what the students are doing with the materials.


Informal Assessments: Intro-slip collected during intro activity; student insights, ideas, and understandings as shared in initial story skits and class discussions.

Formal Assessment: Students' final decision regarding lithium resources in Bolivia.

References and Resources