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The Great Energy Debate

Teaching Materials by National Geographic - Starting Point page by R.E. Teed (SERC).
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


This lesson plan explores the controversial issues surrounding the energy debate in the United States. Students will research recent initiatives being taken in this area and analyze their implications. They will then assume the roles of pivotal stakeholders in this debate and testify to a mock congressional committee responsible for making decisions about public lands and energy resources.

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Learning Goals

Students will:
  • Identify sources of energy used in the United States.
  • Distinguish between fossil fuels and renewable energy.
  • Describe how energy production and consumption can impact public lands.
  • Learn about alternatives to fossil fuels.
  • Participate in a debate over whether to use public lands as sources of energy.

Context for Use

The introduction and the role-playing exercise should take a class period apiece. The intermediate research and following writing assignment would be done out of class.

Teaching Materials

The Great Energy Debate (more info) site includes the lesson plan and a set of links to help the students with their research. Students will also need Internet access for research.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Most importantly, the instructor will need to narrow the topic. Will this be an open session proposing viable alternatives to Middle Eastern oil? Or will this be a discussion and vote on the Alaskan oil-drilling proposal? Or will this be a debate on how to allocate the budget for research on alternative energy?

The teacher will need to flesh out the roles provided. Although recommended for 9th-graders, the lesson plan will probably not need to be adapted for undergraduates, in part because he or she will need to design assessment criteria. The debate will be one for which the teacher will need to remind the students to take the role of their character fairly seriously, even if the student disagrees with the character's perspective.


The site proposes a fascinating assignment to follow up the debate: a paper countering the arguments they made during the debate. Before the debate, the instructor might ask students to work in teams each of which would create a table showing the current breakdown of U.S. energy sources: oil, coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, other, including quantity consumed each year and sources. It would be interesting to see how numbers varied between the tables constructed by oil industry advocates and environmentalists.

Timothy Heaton's Energy and Mineral Resources ( This site may be offline. ) practice exam could be used in its online form as a warm-up exercise, or as a source of questions (and multiple choice answers) for a follow-up examination.

References and Resources

In addition to the links at the bottom of the lesson plan:

Interactive role-playing exercises dealing with the complicated issue of humanity's dependence on fossil fuels and its consequences include:

  • Mock Environmental Summit
    At the end of a six-week class or unit on global warming, students role-play representatives from various countries and organizations at an international summit on global warming.

  • The Great Energy Debate
    This lesson plan explores the energy debate in the U.S. Students will hold a mock congressional committee meeting and make decisions about public lands and energy resources.

  • What Should We Do About Global Warming?
    This module contains an 8-lesson curriculum to study greenhouse gases and global warming using data and visualizations. The students will summarize the issue in a mock debate or a presentation.