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Atmosphere, Energy, Geosphere, Hydrosphere



As we examine our daily life, it is apparent that we are dependent on multiple forms of energy sources. Think about the simple act of turning on the faucet to get a drink of water. What energy sources are needed? Pumps are used to move the water up into the water tower for later distribution in the community; energy is required to run water treatment facilities; maintenance trucks gobble fuel to maintain the system, and on and on. When you flip a light switch to power your lights, somewhere - maybe at a coal-fired power plant, solar power farm, wind generator, hydroelectric dam, or a natural gas power plant - energy is being transformed into electrical energy. The exact process used depends on your geographic location and what forms of energy are used to power the electric grid in your region.

As we have become more aware of the Earth system and its complex interactions, we have found that choices we made for energy over the last century have had unforeseen consequences for all parts of the Earth system. For example coal, a fossil fuel that is inexpensive for its energy density(graphic here), was the best choice in the late 1800s and most of the previous century to fuel the needs of many of the major countries in the world. But, as our understanding of the Earth system developed, we found there was a price to be paid. The hydrosphere was adversely affected by acid rain when brown coal was used. This of course had consequences for the aquatic and plant life of the biosphere downwind from these regions. More recently, there is growing evidence that increases in the atmosphere's carbon dioxide concentration due to burning of fossil fuels is a major contributor to global warming and subsequent climate change.

We are on a crash course with the environment unless changes are made. Numerous solutions have been proposed to reduce our carbon footprint through changes in our energy usage. These proposals range from changing our transportation fuel from fossil fuel (oil) to biofuels, electrical, hydrogen fuel cells, or other fuels such as natural gas. At the same time, lifestyle changes are deemed necessary to reduce energy usage through increased efficiency, green construction, and walking, biking or using mass transportation as an alternative to automobiles. In order to make major changes, we need to look at how we currently provide power to our society. This is no easy task; there are no easy solutions. In fact, this is the greatest challenge of our current century.

But what if you had the chance and the power to completely overhaul how electrical energy is supplied to your community? This is not as far-fetched as you think. Greensburg, Kansas, was forced into the choice when it was destroyed by a tornado in May of 2007. Instead of abandoning the town or rebuilding using traditional designs, the community chose to redesign and re-engineer the community for sustainable energy. After Haiti's devastating earthquake in 2010, the country lost much of its energy infrastructure. This small, poor country now has a chance to choose a green path that does not rely on deforesting the land for fuel or building large fossil-fuel energy plants. The ultimate outcomes of these real-life experiments may not be known for years, but they provide a means by which we can already begin to study how such changes influence the Earth system.


Your team has been appointed to a planning commission for developing a sustainable energy community within the next ten years. Your task is to propose a plan for providing electricity to serve the needs of your community for homes, industry, and transportation. The proposed plan must base its arguments on data, such as data from NASA and other sources, to make use of the best energy resources for your area that will reduce carbon emissions, be sustainable, and maximize efficiency. You are also to include an Earth system analysis in order to predict the impact of your plan.

Your team has been appointed to a community development program to develop a sustainable energy plan to be implemented over the next ten years. Your plan must not only consider the development of sustainable energy, but also improvements in construction practices, efficiency, and transportation. Critical to success of this plan is a critical Earth system analysis of your plan's impact.


Date: 3/16/2010

Scenario Images:

Eco-Homestead House,Greensburg, KS
Image Credit: Greensburg Greentown
The eco-homestead house is designed for maximum efficiency in energy use and reducing impact on the earth system by using local resources and knowledge of climate conditions.
Larger version of the image.

NASA's Earth Observatory: Measuring Solar Insolation
Image Credit: NASA
The false color image shows average solar insolation. This information is useful for engineers and entrepreneurs who want to develop solar energy. A full description of the image can be found here.

Electric recharge station in Florence, Italy
Photo Credit: Paul Adams

Electric-powered scooters are popular in Italy. The picture illustrates a charging station located on the street in Florence, Italy.

NASA: Hydrokinetic Energy Transfer System
Image Credit: NASA
The diagram is a proposed Hydrokinetic Energy Transfer System, that is a system to transform wave and tidal energy into electrical energy. A full explanation of the plan can be viewed here.

NASA Visible Earth: Global Wind Speed
Image Credit: NASA
The images show the global distribution of wind speeds, useful in planning locations for wind farms. More information on the image can be found here.
An animation of global wind speeds can be found here.



Energy Information Administration: Energy Explained (Cycle A)
The link takes you to a primer on renewable and non-renewable energy, energy types and projections, basic consumption facts, and much more. There is a great deal of background information and links for teachers. One item to note on the start page are the links near the center of the page that allow you to look at the energy profile for a state or for different countries. If you are looking for more in-depth information, including projections into 2035 and beyond, go to to the main page of the US Energy Information Administration. EIA is a rich resource to help develop a background knowledge on the use of energy.


NASA's Earth Observatory: Watching Our Ozone Weather (Cycle A)
The resource discusses how our choice of energy sources affects the atmosphere.


Rebuilding Greensburg, Kansas as a Sustainable Community (Cycle A)
A video interview with citizens from Greensburg on their experiences and plans for rebuilding a the community as a green community. The video was produced by the US Department of Energy. A related video, on building a sustainable community, is Sustainable Communities which features three communities - Greensburg,KS; San Jose, CA; and Raliegh, NC - that earned the Siemens and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Sustainable Community Award.


The power of a Brazilian wind (Cycle A)
The resource discusses the requirements for siting a wind farm off the coast of Brazil. NASA satellite data was used in place of traditional sampling to help develop sustainable energy in Brazil.


What is sustainability? (Cycle A)
A definition for sustainability from the EPA and site for several resources and aspects of sustainability. There is also a link to ways individuals can help with sustainability.


Greensburg, Kansas - A Green Community (Cycle B)
The link that is provided will take you to the "Sustainable Comprehensive Master Plan" for Greensburg, KS, a town that was literally blown away by a tornado in 2007. The community chose to rebuild as a green community. One part of being a green community is the use of sustainable and renewable resources. The table of contents will help you locate the material on energy. Be sure to look at the rest of the site as it addresses several other issues related to being green and sustainable such as zero-energy homes.

Information on current efforts to rebuild Greensburg, which is expected to take five to ten years, can be found on a blog at Greensburg GreenTown. The site updates on the progress of the community, media resources (including a video of the tornado), eco-homes being built in the city, and a wealth of other information.

A related link at the U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, is Rebuiliding Green in Greensburg, Kansas. There are several downloadable brochures and information sheets about rebuilding using renewable energy and green construction after a disaster. There are several excellent resources.


NASA News: Ocean Wind Power Maps Reveal Possible Wind Energy Sources (Cycle B)
The article discusses the use of data from the NASA QuikSCAT mission to look at ocean winds as a source for wind energy. The possibility of floating wind farms in the ocean is addressed. An additional resource and map view of wind energy that can be useful in determining ocean-based wind farms is available from the Earth Observatory.


Solar Power Brings Light to Quake-Darkened Haiti (Cycle B)
The article discusses the options of rebuilding Haiti using renewable energy resources, how renewable could expand the availability of electricity, and reduce the use of limited biomass fuels such as wood. A related article [begin popuplink]Rebuilding Haiti Green provides some additional information about plans to rebuild a green Haiti.


Book: Earth: The Sequel: The race to reinvent energy and stop global warming (Cycle C)
The book, written by Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn, explores what people are doing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions through choices related to sustainable/renewable energy using solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal energy. The book also looks at the innovators and investors who drive the economic engine that will move these alternative energies to scale, and explores the politics surrounding energy. This is a very good source to at least skim as you address the task.
The book can be obtained either through a library or bookstore. ISBN 978-0-393-06690-6.


NASA's Sustainability Base (Cycle C)
NASA Ames Research Center is constructing a "zero net energy consumption" building to illustrate the use of NASA-developed technologies and data in preparing for a sustainable future. The resource has a short video overview and links to several other related projects.


National Public Radio: Power Hungry: Recreating the Electric Power Grid (Cycle C)
The move to a greener energy use and grid presents a series of environmental, social, and political issues. This 10-part radio series provides an audio overview of the issues that will need to be addressed as we look into the energy future for the United States. One of the questions to be dealt with is how do you move energy from one region of the United States, such as the Great Plains with wind, to regions without the wind resources?


Sample Investigations:


4H Wind Curriculum Grab and Go Activity on Renewable Scavenger Hunt (Cycle A)
The Wind Curriculum Grab and Go activity page is a free site of activities and investigations that can be used with students. The provided link is for one of these activities, Renewable Scavenger Hunt, which has students looking for the use of renewable energy sources in their community. If you go to the main page for 4H The Power of the Wind Grab and Go Page you will find other activities related to wind energy, such as siting a wind farm.
Difficulty: intermediate
Adaptations for Beginners: The material is appropriate for all ages.
Adaptations for Intermediate/Advanced: The material is appropriate for all ages.


National Energy Education Development (NEED) Project (Cycle A)
The NEED site is a rich collection. The material on the page includes student-level reading about energy sources, types, and limitations. Classroom ready curriculum on wind, solar, efficiency, and other related energy topics is available for download. There are also test banks, classroom activities, and project ideas. The material is correlated with national standards and by age-level. There are several classroom investigations that can be used related to energy.
Difficulty: intermediate
There are materials on the site appropriate for beginning learners.
There are materials on the site appropriate for advanced learners.


US Energy Information Administration: Energy Kids (Cycle A)
Energy kids provides classroom projects, games, and basic information on energy. The site has materials appropriate for all grade levels. Of particular note are lesson plans for classroom use, which emphasize student inquiry, energy calculators, information on using and saving energy, and, a listing of potential science fair projects for all grade levels.
Difficulty: beginner


Installed Solar Panel Data (Cycle B)
Vernier Software has developed solar activities based upon the solar panels that have been installed on the company's building. The data and suggested activities provide real-world data applications for the classroom and complement the MY NASA Data activities. Another very visual site, with real-time solar panel readouts, longitudinal data, and comparison of energy produced related to the consumption of items such as light bulbs, gas, and trees is accessed through the Greensburg, KS 5.4.7 Arts Center. The visual presentation of energy output can be combined with MY NASA Data cloud cover information as part of a student investigation on the use of solar energy.
Difficulty: advanced
Adaptations for Beginners: The visual display at the 5.4.7 Arts Center relates the energy production to commonly viewed items in the environment. The students can use this information to relate to energy use in the home.


Life Styles Project (Cycle B)
This three-week activity from the Earth Exploration Toolbook asks students to track their uses of resources with the goal of seeing how their choices can change the way they impact the environment. The project looks at energy inputs and outputs, ways to reduce energy, and some sphere-to-sphere interactions.
Difficulty: intermediate
Adaptions for Beginners: A reduction of the number of items to look at can make this accessible for younger students.


MY NASA DATA: Two Lessons on Solar Energy (Cycle B)
MY NASA DATA provides students access to satellite data in a readily usable format. There are two lessons that deal with determining the best locations for solar energy. These can be accessed directly by following the link, Think GREEN - Utilizing Renewable Solar Energy and Solar Cell Energy Availability From Around the Country.
Difficulty: intermediate
The lesson will work with both intermediate and advanced learners.


Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air (Cycle B)
This free download, which can also be purchased through bookstores, is an excellent source of numerical investigations on claims related to sustainable energy. The book, as noted by the author, is written in English - not American - so the language and examples are written from a British perspective. The book provides several clarifying graphs and calculations that can be used to help students grasp the magnitude of the problems with various solutions proposed for sustainable energy. It is an excellent resource for examples of sustainable energy. The PDF downloads are organized by topic, which will assist in identifying the most relevant material.
Difficulty: advanced
Adaptations for Intermediate: Some of the problems can be simplified. These problems are similar in nature to Fermi Questions which are appropriate for middle school students.


NASA: Prediction of World Energy Resource (Cycle C)
This site provides a user interface to retrieve data relevant for determining the usefulness of solar energy production in a region, wind speeds, energy resources for sustainable construction, and an explanation of the different parameters used for renewable energy measures. It has data from over 200 satellite-derived meteorology and solar energy parameters monthly averaged from 22 years of data. It also has data tables for a particular location, color plots on both global and regional scales, and global solar energy data for 1195 ground sites. Very useful site for determining what might be the best energy choice for a region.
Difficulty: advanced


NASA: Solar Energy for Space Exploration (Cycle C)
Though most of the project is concerned with calculating the solar cell requirements for the ISS, the materials and lessons are excellent resources for developing an understanding of solar cells and how to power a system. The teacher and student materials begin by considering what is needed to power a house, series and parallel circuits, and the parameters needed to optimize output power. Data for the house problem comes from the Prediction of Worldwide Energy Resource Project - Surface meteorology and solar energy data interface.
Difficulty: intermediate
Adaptations for Beginners:
Some of the investigations with solar cells could be done to explain the parameters used in solar cell placement.


Power and Energy Interactive Investigation Lessons (Cycle C)
What happens to the amount of carbon introduced into the atmosphere as you bring alternative energies on line? How do you mix the various sources of energy on the electric grid as we make more use of alternatives to fossil fuels? These questions and more can be explored with a series of on-line investigations, with teaching notes, developed by power engineering experts and educators from the Office for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education (MSTE) and the Information Trust Institute (ITI) at the University of Illinois.
Difficulty: advanced
This material is appropriate for both intermediate and advanced learners.




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Transfer of energy
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Abilities of technological design
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Populations, resources, and environments
        • Risks and benefits
        • Science and technology in society
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Structure of atoms
        • Structure and properties of matter
        • Motions and forces
        • Conservation of energy and increase in disorder
        • Interactions of energy and matter
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Abilities of technological design
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Natural resources
        • Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges
      • History and Nature of Science (Std G)
        • Science as a human endeavor
  • Mathematics
    Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), 2000 This set of Standards proposes the mathematics concepts that all students should have the opportunity to learn. Each of these ten Standards applies across all grades, prekindergarten through grade 12. Even though each of these ten Standards applies to all grades, emphases and expectations will vary both within and between the grade bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12). For instance, the emphasis on number is greatest in prekindergarten through grade 2, and by grades 9-12, number receives less instructional attention. Also the total time for mathematical instruction will be divided differently according to particular needs in each grade band - for example, in the middle grades, the majority of instructional time would address algebra and geometry.
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to geometry and spatial sense so that all students—
      • use visualization and spatial reasoning to solve problems both within and outside of mathematics.
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to data analysis, statistics, and probability so that all students—
      • pose questions and collect, organize, and represent data to answer those questions;
      • interpret data using methods of exploratory data analysis;
      Mathematics instructional programs should focus on solving problems as part of understanding mathematics so that all students—
      • build new mathematical knowledge through their work with problems;
      • develop a disposition to formulate, represent, abstract, and generalize in situations within and outside mathematics;
      • apply a wide variety of strategies to solve problems and adapt the strategies to new situations;
      • monitor and reflect on their mathematical thinking in solving problems.
      Mathematics instructional programs should focus on learning to reason and construct proofs as part of understanding mathematics so that all students—
      • make and investigate mathematical conjectures;
      Mathematics instructional programs should use communication to foster understanding of mathematics so that all students—
      • express mathematical ideas coherently and clearly to peers, teachers, and others;
      Mathematics instructional programs should emphasize connections to foster understanding of mathematics so that all students—
      • recognize and use connections among different mathematical ideas;
      • understand how mathematical ideas build on one another to produce a coherent whole;
      • recognize, use, and learn about mathematics in contexts outside of mathematics.
      Mathematics instructional programs should emphasize mathematical representations to foster understanding of mathematics so that all students—
      • use representations to model and interpret physical, social, and mathematical phenomena.
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      Geography studies the relationships between people, places, and environments by mapping information about them into a spatial context. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
      People are central to geography in that human activities help shape Earth’s surface, human settlements and structures are part of Earth’s surface, and humans compete for control of Earth’s surface. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The patterns and networks of economic interdependence on Earth’s surface
      Knowledge of geography enables people to develop an understanding of the relationships between people, places, and environments over time — that is, of Earth as it was, is, and might be. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to apply geography to interpret the present and plan for the future
  • Technology
    The International Society for Technology Education From and
      • Students understand the ethical, cultural, and societal issues related to technology.
      • Students develop positive attitudes toward technology uses that support lifelong learning, collaboration, personal pursuits, and productivity.
      • Students use productivity tools to collaborate in constructing technology-enhanced models, prepare publications, and produce other creative works.
      • Students use telecommunications to collaborate, publish, and interact with peers, experts, and other audiences.
      • Students use technology tools to process data and report results.
      • Students employ technology in the development of strategies for solving problems in the real world.
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