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Unit 1: The Food-Energy-Water Connection

These materials have been reviewed for their alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards as detailed below. Visit InTeGrate and the NGSS to learn more.


Students explore how food is connected to the dynamic elements of energy and water.

Science and Engineering Practices

Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions: Construct an explanation that includes qualitative or quantitative relationships between variables that predict(s) and/or describe(s) phenomena. MS-P6.1:

Cross Cutting Concepts

Systems and System Models: Systems may interact with other systems; they may have sub-systems and be a part of larger complex systems. MS-C4.1:

Disciplinary Core Ideas

Natural Resources: All forms of energy production and other resource extraction have associated economic, social, environmental, and geopolitical costs and risks as well as benefits. New technologies and social regulations can change the balance of these factors. HS-ESS3.A2:

  1. This material was developed and reviewed through the InTeGrate curricular materials development process. This rigorous, structured process includes:

    • team-based development to ensure materials are appropriate across multiple educational settings.
    • multiple iterative reviews and feedback cycles through the course of material development with input to the authoring team from both project editors and an external assessment team.
    • real in-class testing of materials in at least 3 institutions with external review of student assessment data.
    • multiple reviews to ensure the materials meet the InTeGrate materials rubric which codifies best practices in curricular development, student assessment and pedagogic techniques.
    • review by external experts for accuracy of the science content.

  2. This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Collection

    Resources in this top level collection a) must have scored Exemplary or Very Good in all five review categories, and must also rate as “Exemplary” in at least three of the five categories. The five categories included in the peer review process are

    • Scientific Accuracy
    • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
    • Pedagogic Effectiveness
    • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
    • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

    For more information about the peer review process itself, please see

This page first made public: Oct 23, 2017


In this unit, students will investigate how components of energy and water relate to each other for the purpose of food production. Students will also explore how food is connected to the dynamic elements of energy and water. The focus of student learning is on the identification of the six bilateral relationships that describe food, energy, and water as a system. This unit also introduces the following key concepts: human need and demand for resources, human usage of resources, limitations of world resources, interdependency, production requirements for food, energy, water, supply and demand, cause and effect, decision-making, consequences and impacts, real-world implications, and the preeminently central role of water.

Learning Goals

Unit 1 Learning Goal: Students will investigate the components of energy and water as they relate to food production. They will also learn how food is connected to the dynamic elements of energy and water.

Objectives to accomplish unit learning goal:

  • Students will explain the roles of each component as it relates to the others in the system.
  • Students will explain the set of connections that make up the system if the system breaks down or the connections are negatively affected.
  • Students will identify the most important factors involved in food production, based on the roles of energy and water in that production.
  • Students will explain and support their choices.

Context for Use

This unit is designed to function as three days of instruction in a very broad array of course types, from physical sciences to social sciences and humanities. It is applicable also to a wide range of class sizes. It is best suited for undergraduate-level courses. The activities are designed to fit within class periods in a three-credit-hour course. Instruction is adapted for different teaching needs, and the activities can be done in class, completed together, or completed as homework, depending on time and topical needs. Laptops, tablets, or desktop computers with Internet connectivity, and/or smart classrooms are best for the audio-visual dimensions of this unit. However, some unit materials can be made available using handouts and classroom dry-erase boards. The unit requires no prerequisite skills or concept mastery before beginning. As a stand-alone unit, the materials communicate the need for understanding the relevance of better resource management in the service of improving human health and well-being.

Description and Teaching Materials

This is an audio-visual introduction of the unit that includes videos introducing students to the elemental forces in nature indispensable to food production. The videos also initiate discussions about the real-world implications and consequences of decisions made regarding energy & water management and use. The module slides for this unit provide an accessible means for students to follow, and instructors to convey, important questions, concepts, themes, relationships, and issues central to gaining an understanding of the subject matter. Additional instructions are provided in the Unit 1 teaching guide (Microsoft Word 151kB Aug14 17).

Note: The student version of the Unit 1 Student Page (see link in the blue box at the top of the page for an isolated student version) can be provided to students. The page contains the basic lesson layout, readings, videos, and assignments.

Activity 1.1: Module Introduction, Overview of Unit 1, Discussion of Concepts and Themes, and Formation of Groups (approximate time: 60 min)

Students are introduced to the basic unit structure of the module and why module participation is a worthwhile learning experience. Next, the main concepts and themes that lie at the foundation of Unit 1 are presented. The Concept & Themes List can be shown from the PowerPoint Slide presentation (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 8.4MB Oct25 17) or printed as physical handouts, or both. Either way, it is important that the students keep these concepts and themes in mind as they go through the unit. The instructor is reinforcing comprehension, and understanding of the concepts and themes through solid explanations, and offering examples of these concepts and themes in action. The instructor also places students in groups of three to five members to establish a context for them to engage in dual-level collaborative learning. This is the small-group scale. The whole class represents the large-group scale. Once groups have been established, assign groups a number and record group members' names. Provide at least one folder per group containing paper copies of the unit slides. This is a convenient method for group discussion meetings with and without computer technology resources.

Activity 1.2: Guided Discussion and Viewing of Introductory Videos (approximate time: 45–60 min)

For retention and comprehension purposes, we recommend students view the very short videos below twice. Notes can be taken during the second viewing. Following the repeat viewing of Video #1, provide a guided discussion of students' individual, and our collective appreciation, of 1) how essential the the food water energy connection is; and 2) the sense of scale involved in use of, and need for, these elements presented in the video, highlighting some of the fundamental human activity at work.

Next, view Video #2, employing the same method as for Video #1. Video #2 offers an example of the real-world implications and challenges of managing the food energy and water connection from a national perspective, the pressure of resource demands on resource supplies, the need for more clean, renewable energy sources, and a call for a new mindset. This group of diagrams makes the points that 1) production from food-energy-water connections are based on geoscience and engineering knowledge/skills; 2) water is the natural starting point to understanding dynamics of food, water, and energy; and 3) the importance of the food-energy-water connection is being addressed internationally.

  1. The Food-Water-Energy Nexus — Thinking Explained. Institute of International and European Affairs (time -2:18 seconds) -
  2. The Food Water Energy Nexus in South Africa. World Wildlife Fund — South Africa (time- 2:31 seconds) -

Note that students should bookmark these videos in their phones, tablets, and laptops for return viewing.

Activity 1.3: The Food-Energy-Water Connection & Systems Thinking — A Guided Discussion (approx. time: 30–40 min)

For this activity, show the Unit 1 PowerPoint presentation slides in sequential order on a classroom screen or refer students to their group and individual handouts that have been copied for their use, that include all the slides from Unit 1. Show the Unit 1: Module Presentation Slides (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 8.4MB Oct25 17) . While viewing the slides, engage the students to revisit and revise their Activity 1.2 discussion responses and consider the following questions to stimulate deeper thought and dialogue.

  1. Have an instructor-led, guided discussion on the significance of the information and how it builds an understanding of the nature and dynamics of a complex system. Be willing to return to a focus on the Unit 1: Concepts and Themes from the list as needed. Stress that the list and the slides will help the students choose their central points in their reflection paper.

Activity 1.4: A Five-Minute Writing (approximate time: 10 min)

Students will write a five minute paper (Acrobat (PDF) 10kB Aug16 17) which provides the opportunity for the instructor to determine, in real time, whether the students' perception of the central points match up with those of the instructor. They can write the paper individually or in small groups (we suggest the groups stay between three to five persons). This paper will also give students an opportunity to organize their thoughts and synthesize what they have encountered in the curricular materials. For this assignment, ask students to address the following:

  • Rank the four types of limitations to producing sufficient levels of food in order of significance, based on your understanding of how each affects real-world situations. List them in rank order, first to fourth, and explain why.

You might also include in the five-minute paper the opportunity for students to point to an aspect of the lesson or unit that remains unresolved in their minds. Such remaining issues can provide jumping off points for further reflection and future discussion.

Activity 1.5: Summative Assessment — Five-Minute Writing (approximate time: 8 min)

In concise written form, students will answer to the following question: Describe the roles of energy and water in food production. Provide examples of real-world challenges to food availability Activity 1.5 Minute Paper (Acrobat (PDF) 48kB Oct23 16).

Teaching Notes and Tips

The professor should utilize the reference materials to become familiar with the human dimension of the food energy water nexus systems. The instructor can refer to the instructor guide (Microsoft Word 151kB Aug14 17).


Activity 1.5 minute paper prompt and rubric (Acrobat (PDF) 48kB Oct23 16)

References and Resources

Resources Used in the Unit

1. Getting to Grips with the Water-Energy-Food Nexus? An IChemE Green Paper.

Reference 1 presents a clear and comprehensive look at the food-energy-water system, its linkages and inter-dependencies in the context of human reliance.

2. The Food-Water-Energy Nexus - Thinking Explained. Institute of International and European Affairs. (time -2:18 seconds).

3. The Food-Water-Energy Nexus in South Africa. World Wildlife Fund - South Africa. (time- 2:31 seconds).

References 2 and 3 present basic, practical descriptions of the food-energy-water system.

Additional References and Resources

4. Environmental Justice, Environmental Health Disparities and Food Systems Thinking: Challenges and Opportunities.

References in #4 integrate food systems thinking into the environment, justice, and health.

5. "Food sovereignty, food security and health equity: a meta-narrative mapping exercise." A.M. Weiler, C. Hergesheimer, B. Brisbois, H. Wittman, A. Yassi and J. M. Spiegel. Health Policy and Planning. 2015. 30:1078–1092 doi:10.1093/heapol/czu109

6. "Globalization, Climate Change, and Human Health." Anthony J. McMichael. New England Journal of Medicine. 2013. 368:1335-43. DOI:10.1056/NEJMra1109341.

7. Environmental sustainability issues in the food–energy–water nexus: Breakfast cereals and snacks. H.K. Jeswani, R. Burkinshaw, and A. Azapagic. Sustainable Production and Consumption. 2015. 2:17-28.

8. Tracing the Water Energy Food Nexus — Description Theory and Practice Geography Compass 9/8 (2015): 445–460, 10.1111/gec3.12222.

9. Scale and Cross Scale-Dynamics: Governance and Information in a Multilevel World. David W. Cash. W. Neil Adger, Fikret Berkes, Po Garden, Louis Lebel, Per Olsson, Lowell Pritchard, and Oran Young. Ecology and Society. 2006. 11(2):8.

References 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 give additional information and perspectives and are sources for some of the slides in the PowerPoint presentations.

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »