January 17th, 2015

Exploring the Politics and Sustainability of Energy Production: A Professional Development Program for Science Teachers

By Mark Bloom, Sarah Quebec Fuentes, Kelly Feille and Molly Holden

Bloom Article Thumbnail 2 use this oneAbstract:

This paper describes a three-week professional development program, for inservice science teachers, which included on-site field trips to different energy production sites, explored the variety of opinions about them (via film, podcasts, news media, and expert lectures), and incorporated mathematical modeling as a lens through which to evaluate the relative sustainability of each energy type. The teacher participants explored oil, natural gas, hydroelectric, nuclear, wind, and coal energy production methods. This paper describes in detail their experience at a coal strip mine and a coal fueled power plant. For each type of energy, the teachers completed a pre- and post-assessment on their understanding of how the energy source was used to generate electricity and their perceptions of the environmental costs of each. The participants’ change in understanding of the energy production methods and increasing awareness of environmental costs are shared. Further, in their own words, participants describe the impact of the professional development on their own knowledge base and their classroom teaching as well as their perceptions of experiential learning as a vehicle for conceptual change.

Keywords: energy politics, sustainability, professional development, inservice teachers, mathematical modeling, experiential learning


Mitigation of impending environmental impacts will require an unprecedented effort on the part of all of earth’s citizens. It will require the public to possess the intellectual tools necessary to understand and evaluate issues, and to compare sources and dig deeper into problems so as to differentiate truth from propaganda. (Saylan & Blumstein, 2011, p. 19)

While multiple definitions of sustainability exist, Cullingford (2004) describes it generally as “paying attention to the long-term consequences of actions and, by implication, thinking of others who might suffer from the immediacy of one’s personal greed” (p. 17). While this most often brings to mind the natural environment, such consequences can also extend to societal and economic realms (among others). The sustainability of energy in the United States has become a highly politicized issue, and the various sources of energy and energy production methods are intimately linked to the looming environmental concerns including water shortages, habitat destruction, species loss, and climate change. Navigating such a political landscape requires the ability to (1) understand the basic methods of energy production, (2) see beyond the rhetoric provided by special interest groups (e.g., industry representatives, environmentalists, corporations) and recognize the truth and/or fallacy of their various perspectives, and (3) compare the relative sustainability of various energy sources (Bloom, Quebec Fuentes, Feille, 2014). The present paper describes a professional development program, for inservice science teachers, which explored the politics and sustainability of six distinct energy sources. Participants went on field trips to observe coal, oil, natural gas, wind, hydroelectric, and nuclear energy production methods and, through news, expert lectures, media, film, podcast, and text, gained knowledge of multiple opposing opinions of each energy source. Using a pedagogical approach, which incorporated experiential learning and mathematics modeling, participants developed a more sophisticated perception regarding the sustainability of energy.


Literature Review


Politicization of Energy

Large scale environmental concerns such as biodiversity loss, resource depletion, industrial pollution, and climate change have gained increasing importance over the last several decades. In his book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Friedman (2008) warned that the American way of energy and resource consumption, if adopted by developing countries, would lead to a worldwide climate and biodiversity disaster. He advocates for a “redesigning and reinventing” (p. 76) of how Americans utilize natural resources and consume energy that incorporate sustainable practices. Such changes, however, do not come easy. Saylan and Blumstein (2011) describe the highly politicized nature of environmental sustainability and the resulting paralyzing indecision, argumentation, and lack of change that exists today. They partially blame the current situation on the educational institutions, which have not fostered critical thinking skills sufficient to understand complex issues such as environmental sustainability. Instead, they maintain that society craves simplistic explanations that are “quickly expressed and easily digested” (Saylan & Blumstein, 2011, pp. 3-4) despite the fact that such snippets rarely express authentic representations of the issues (Baimbridge, 2004). Indeed, such simplified representations of complex issues often take the form of diametrically opposed viewpoints that can represent economic, political, and even religious perspectives and juxtapose ecocentric philosophies against technocentric (Bybee, McCrae, & Laurie, 2009).

The current political landscape presents distinct viewpoints regarding environmental issues with the more liberal administrations adopting pro-environmental positions while their more conservative counterparts align with technocentric, business-friendly positions (Saylan & Blumstein, 2011). This dichotomy was not always the case. Prior to the mid 1980’s, the strong political undertones were not yet present and environmentalism was largely bipartisan in nature. Friedman (2008) marks the Reagan administration (1981-1989) as the turning point away from bipartisanship regarding the environment: “Regan ran not only against government in general but against environmental regulation in particular” and “turned environmental regulation into a much more partisan and polarizing issue than it had ever been before” (p. 15). However, in a democratic society, an informed citizenry is of utmost importance to meet the challenges presented with respect to environmental concerns. Only such an informed society will be able to evaluate the various perspectives presented by distinct interest groups and be able to make educated decisions.


Experiential Learning

From an experiential standpoint, “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984, p. 38). However, what constitutes an experience varies in the literature on experiential learning (Moon, 1999). Boud, Keogh, and Walker (1985) adopt a wide-ranging interpretation of experience, which includes professional development sessions, on-site visits, talks, research, and unanticipated events. Moon argues that experience typically encompasses more than one component. For example, an on-site visit may be accompanied by a talk or supporting literature. Further, learners bring preconceived notions with them to experiences (Moon, 1999). In particular, with respect to sustainability education, Garvey (2013) stresses the importance of differentiating between unprejudiced reality and biased perceptions. Experiential learning is a means to make this distinction.

False subjective beliefs can often be supported by increased access to information but they are rarely supported by increased access to experiences. The more we actually experience things and use the information available to supplement and complement our knowledge, the greater and more accurate the understanding. (Garvey, 2013, para. 6)

According to the opening definition, learning requires not only experiences but also the transformation of these experiences. This process of modifying preconceived notions, confronting suppositions, and building knowledge involves reflection (Eraut, 1994; Kolb, 1984; Medrick, 2013; Moon, 1999). Engaging in mathematical modeling is a way to foster this reflection on experiences.


Mathematical Modeling

Mathematical modeling exemplifies the connection between mathematics and “intelligent citizenship” often in the arena of scientific concerns (Pollak, 2011, p. vii). In particular, a mathematical model is a “mathematical construct designed to study a real-world system or behavior of interest” (Giordano, Weir, & Fox, 2003, p. 1). The process of building a model and using it to make decisions about a real-life problem encompasses repeated cycles of the following stages:

  1. Identify a problem,
  2. Simplify the problem,
  3. Create a model to represent the simplified problem using mathematics,
  4. Implement the model for the problem,
  5. Assess whether the model appropriately addresses the problem, and
  6. Modify the model based on the assessment (Munakata, 2006)

The first two stages involve developing an understanding of a problem to build a representative model. These stages require a great amount of time while simultaneously presenting difficulties for novice mathematical modelers (Galbraith, Stillman, Brown, & Edwards, 2007; Haines & Crouch, 2010). In order to understand a problem, modelers must consider what information is important to the problem, make assumptions, identify relevant variables, and determine any relationships between the variables (Blum & Kaiser, 1991 as cited in Maaβ, 2006; see also Moscardini, 1989; Pollak, 2007). To accomplish this level of comprehension, experts in the field of modeling recommend thorough research via a combination of examinations of literature, multiple forms of media, interaction with experts, actual experiences, and simulations (Brinkman & Brinkman, 2007; Caron & Bélair, 2007; Galbraith et al., 2007). Engaging in the modeling process may lead to an in-depth understanding of and informed decision-making regarding a real world concern (Brinkman & Brinkman 2007; Galbraith et al., 2007; Hilborn & Mangel, 1997).


Professional Development

The overall intention of the professional development (PD) was to increase the participants’ awareness of the complexity of energy sustainability and to expose them to the naivety of simplistic, one-sided perspectives on the sustainability of any single energy source. To accomplish this, the PD was designed to develop the participants’ understanding of the major methods of energy production used to generate electricity in Texas and to explore the relative environmental sustainability of each. Three science educators, a mathematics educator, and content specialists facilitated the PD, which included an intensive three-week summer session plus monthly follow-up meetings throughout the subsequent academic year. Sixteen inservice secondary science teachers participated in the PD program. The three-week portion of the PD is the focus of the present paper. During the summer experience, participants learned about mathematical modeling, studied the energy production process via in-class and on-site instruction and experiences, and participated in group discussions and activities, which helped to synthesize information gained during classroom and field experiences.

Employing a modeling as vehicle approach (Maaβ, 2006), mathematical modeling became a frame which participants used as they considered information gained throughout the three-week PD. An initial introduction to mathematical modeling centered on the beginning stages of the modeling process: identifying variables and making assumptions. In particular, participants identified the variables for consideration when establishing a departure time to arrive at work on time. Subsequently, the mathematics educator guided participants in the generation of the steps of the modeling process. After two sessions, the participants created and presented initial models of the environmental costs of locally versus non-locally grown produce.

Instruction about the various energy production processes varied and included non-biased, scientific background information about general energy production methods and various, opposing perspectives regarding economic and environmental benefits (and costs) of each energy source. Information sources that spanned the spectrum of perspectives regarding energy production sources included The Energy Report published by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts [TCPA] (2008), films (both instructional documentaries and mainstream), news media, on-site visits to energy extraction/production sites, and presentations by energy sector representatives and environmental biologists. Before, during, and after on-site visits the participants shared their developing ideas regarding each energy source and considered the variables when determining environmental impact of energy production. Table 1 describes the experiences for each energy source. A detailed description for coal is in the next section.

At the completion of on-site visits and instruction, in groups, the participants worked to create models comparing the energy sources’ impact on the environment. The intention was not for the groups to generate complete models; however, using a modeling as vehicle approach helped the participants gain an understanding of the complexity of sustainable energy production, a primary goal of the PD. At the conclusion of the three-week PD, each group prepared and delivered a presentation for one assigned stance (either for or against) regarding one assigned energy source. Participants, acting as audience members during the presentations, applied their new understanding to contest or support views communicated by their peers.




Coal Generated Electricity

This section provides a detailed description of instruction and experiences intended to expose participants to multiple perspectives of an energy source, specifically coal power. Initially, participants read textbook materials regarding the scientific, non-biased, background information on the generation of electricity from coal (TCPA, 2008). Participants then visited Oak Hill Mine in Henderson, Texas where a representative from the mine guided them through a bus-tour, which explored the extraction of coal through surface mining and the reclamation process and progress at the mine. Participants observed the mine at all states of extraction and reclamation. The participants were initially surprised by the expansive destruction of the strip mining dragline as they were driven down into the mining pit (Figure 1). However, the

Bloom Figure One Both Photos

Figure 1. Strip mine site (left) and dragline bucket (right), Oak Hill Mine, Henderson, TX.


controlled nature of the strip mining operation contrasted with devastation of mountaintop removal coal mining as depicted in the documentary film, Coal Country (Geller, 2009), which they watched on the way to the mine. Furthermore, the participants were impressed by the reclamation efforts taken by the coal mining company. They observed a reforested section of the mine as well as a constructed wetland to mitigate the environmental impacts of the mining operation (Figure 2). Overall, participants remarked that the coal mine was not as bad as they had expected and had a generally improved perception of coal as an energy source.


Figure 2. Forest (left) and wetland (right) reclamation sites, Oak Hill Mine, Henderson, TX.

Figure 2. Forest (left) and wetland (right) reclamation sites, Oak Hill Mine, Henderson, TX.

After touring Oak Hill Mine, participants proceeded to Martin Creek Steam Electric Power Plant, which was down the road from the mine. At Martin Creek, energy company representatives continued the bus tour and described the process of using the coal that was just mined to generate electricity. Participants followed the coal from its arrival point to the flue gas stack looming high over the plant (Figure 3).


Figure 3. Martin Creek Steam Electric Power Plant, Henderson, TX.

Figure 3. Martin Creek Steam Electric Power Plant, Henderson, TX.


Participants did not tour the internal structure of the facility, but viewed intake and cool-down ponds and visually assessed the environmental impact of the power plant. The contrast of the facility with the environmental reclamation areas of the Oak Hill Mine had a negative impression on the participants, and the general consensus shifted, yet again, as they witnessed a less environmentally friendly side of coal power production.

After the tours of Oak Hill and Martin Creek, the participants viewed the documentary film, Burning the Future: Coal in America (Novack, 2008), which further depicted the effect of coal mining in the Appalachian Mountain region. The two films provided perspectives of coal power, which were contrary to the coal-positive presentations of the industry representatives at the mine and power plant.

Participants debriefed about their experiences at both field sites while considering the perspectives presented in the documentaries. They used this opportunity to share their own viewpoints and if and how their perceptions of coal as an energy source had changed. PD providers emphasized attention to the variables, which must be considered when making decisions regarding sustainability and environmental costs/benefits of coal-powered energy.


Data Sources and Analysis for Evaluating the PD

The goal of the PD was to increase the teachers’ content knowledge of the various energy production methods as well as their environmental impacts so that they could evaluate the relative sustainability of each. To measure the effectiveness of the PD, data were collected from several sources. First, the participants completed assessments on their knowledge of production methods (including source of fuel when appropriate) and their perceptions on the environmental costs of each of the six sources of energy. Specifically, for each type of energy, the participants were asked: (1) Describe [the type of energy], identify its source, and tell how it is used to generate power, and (2) What are the environmental “costs” of this type of energy production? This assessment was administered at the outset of the PD and again after the three-week summer portion of the PD was concluded. Inductive coding (Thomas, 2006) was utilized to evaluate the participants’ descriptions of the production methods, and a list, which included the distinct elements of the participants’ answers, was made for each energy type. These lists of distinct elements were used to evaluate each participant’s individual answers. Similar methodology was employed to identify the environmental costs of each energy source and to evaluate individual’s answers to the second question. Tables 2, 3, and 4 summarize the data from the 10 participants (of the 16), who completed both the pre- and post-assessments. In addition to the pre- and post-assessments, the participants also completed periodic PD evaluation surveys at the conclusion of the summer and throughout the subsequent academic year. Their responses to these surveys offered further insight into the aspects of the PD that they believed most influenced their academic and pedagogical growth.




Aggregate Data for All Energy Types

The participants’ answers to the first questions of the pre- and post-assessments offered insight into their academic understanding of how the energy sources are used to produce electricity. Table 2 depicts the number of distinct elements identified for each energy source in both the pre- and post-assessments. As a group, very little change was detected between the initial assessment responses and those identified at the conclusion of the PD.


Table 2

Distinct Elements of Description of Each Energy Source Identified by Participants on the Pre- and Post-Assessments

Energy Source Pre-Assessment Pre- and Post-Assessment
Coal 6 6
Hydroelectric 3 3
Natural Gas 4 5
Nuclear 5 5
Oil 5 6
Wind 2 3


The second questions on the pre- and post-assessments evaluated the participants’ perceptions of the environmental costs of each energy source. Table 3 displays the number of environmental costs identified for each before and at the conclusion of the PD (pre- and post-).


Table 3

Number of Environmental Costs of Each Energy Source Identified by Participants on the Pre- and Post-Assessments

Energy Source Pre-Assessment Pre- and Post-Assessment
Coal 8 10
Hydroelectric 5 8
Natural Gas 10 12
Nuclear 9 10
Oil 7 13
Wind 7 10


In contrast to the descriptions of each energy source, the group identified more environmental costs for all energy sources on the post-assessment. Tables 2 and 3 represent aggregate data. To reveal individual growth, each participant’s pre- and post-responses were compared. As an example, Table 4 illustrates the evaluation of individual responses to questions one and two for coal.


Individual Data for Coal Generated Electricity

With regard to question one, the participants collectively produced six distinct elements for how coal is used to generate power; they included (1) mined from the earth, (2) various grades/types of coal exist, (3) coal is burned, (4) heat from burning coal used to boil water and produce steam, (5) steam turns a turbine, and (6) a generator captures the energy from the turbine and converts it to electrical energy. No additional answer elements were identified among the post-assessments. In contrast to this lack of change as a group, there was individual growth. Eight of the 10 participants demonstrated a more sophisticated understanding of coal energy production at the conclusion of the PD (first two columns of Table 4).


Table 4

Distinct Elements of Description and Number of Environmental Costs of Coal Energy on the Pre- and Post-Assessments for Each Participant

Description Environmental Costs
Participant Pre-Assessment (out of 6) Pre- and Post-Assessment   (out of 6) Pre-Assessment (out of 8) Pre- and Post-Assessment    (out of 10)
1 3 5 3 5
2 3 3 4 5
3 2 4 3 5
4 5 5 3 5
5 1 3 4              5
6 4 5 4 6
7 0 1 2 3
8 3 5 2 2
9 4 5 2 4
10 1 4 0 2


For example, Participant 10 began the PD with a very limited understanding of how coal is used to generate electricity. Her initial response (Figure 4) displays that her understanding only extended to the fact that coal came from the ground (mined from the earth).


Figure 4. Pre-assessment image depicting Participant 10’s understanding of coal energy.

Figure 4. Pre-assessment image depicting Participant 10’s understanding of coal energy.


However, by the end of the PD, her conception was much more developed as demonstrated by her response to the post-assessment prompt:


Coal is [dug] from underground and sent to a place where they will burn this coal. The heated coal then turns some turbines that connect to generator. This generator then creates electricity.

(Participant 10, post-assessment)


This response includes four answer elements: mined from the earth, coal is burned, steam turns a turbine, and a generator captures the energy from the turbine and converts it to electrical energy.

In the pre-assessments, the participants identified eight environmental costs of coal power: (1) non-renewable, (2) land degradation, (3) wildlife degradation, (4) greenhouse gas emissions, (5) air emissions, (6) water pollution, (7) human health impacts, and (8) pollution (not specified). At the conclusion of the summer PD, the participants identified an additional two costs: (9) water consumption and (10) emissions from equipment used in mining and processing. Nine of the 10 participants identified more environmental costs in their post-assessment response than on the pre-assessment. For example, Participant 1’s pre-assessment response included three costs and communicated a strong ecocentric perspective, focusing on the limited nature of coal as a resource (non-renewable) and the negative ecological impacts of coal extraction (land degradation and wildlife degradation):


Costs include using up a finite amount of product while devastating the landscape. It ruins the environment and leaves a treeless, animal-less, life-less place behind

(Participant 1, pre-assessment)


Her post-assessment, however, revealed a more developed and authentic understanding of the environmental impacts.


Costs 1) harms land by defacing it, 2) puts pollutants in air, 3) pollutes water that it uses to make steam

(Participant 1, post-assessment)


This response gives a more tempered description of the landscape degradation resulting from coal mining (land degradation) and includes reference to the air and water pollution that results from the combustion of coal at the electric power plant (air emissions and water pollution).



All 10 participants individually demonstrated growth in their understanding of the energy production methods and/or the environmental impacts of them. The participants’ responses to the periodic PD evaluation surveys offer insight into what aspects of the PD were most influential to them. The focus of the comments fall into three areas: (1) the participants’ own personal conceptual change regarding energy production and/or sustainability, (2) the participants’ perceptions of the experiential learning aspects of the PD, and (3) ways the participants will incorporate what they learned in their own teaching.

Conceptual Change

Participant 4 related how the PD helped him see past myths portrayed by polarized special interest groups and stressed the importance of research before making judgments:


Students having the opportunity to know more than side of a story will make them more informed in all areas of life and study. They will understand that what they saw on a commercial is not necessarily the truth… Becoming a researcher of issues and not blindly believing rhetoric may be one of the more important lessons my students get from me.

(Participant 4)


Participant 8 noted how differing opinions on controversial issues such as energy sustainability and environmental impact can be valid and have their own strengths and weaknesses depending on the perspective one takes. She stated that the most important theme that emerged for her during the PD was


…that with each person we met we heard a different view point of the same story and that each view point each has its strengths and weaknesses and many times the varying opinion, facts, and general information contradicts each other. So then we are left with professionals in their fields, all of whom have their own agenda, and we are left with muddled information with no clear viewpoint from which to take a stance.

(Participant 8)


The partisan, one-sided, and often contradictory opinions presented by the various interested parties, each of which has some elements of truth to them, had exposed the flaw to accepting any single representation as fully addressing the issue as hand. While the PD exposed the participants to this complexity behind energy sustainability, it did not provide them with absolute answers for the problem. Instead, it fostered in them a need to more fully explore such issues and look for the multiple truths from multiple perspectives.


Experiential Learning

Many of the participants commented on the experiential nature of the PD and attributed their own personal gains to the first-hand, onsite approach of the field trips. For instance, Participant 7 commented on her experiences related to coal-generated electricity.


While visiting the coal mine and power plant I saw the entire process with an understanding of the end result. I was able to understand which buildings served what function at the plant and critically examine the nature of the mining process and really analyze if the cost outweighed the benefit.

(Participant 7)  


Participant 1 noted how the real-life experiences allowed her to connect to her own community and place.


Having direct contact with the places and topics we were studying really made them real to me, took them out of abstraction and paper scenarios to a life experience. … Not only did the speakers and site visits make the content more relevant, but it also connected us to what was happening here in our community, in our place. This is an aspect of place based education that I really had not explored directly in teaching, or in learning.

(Participant 1)


The participants consistently commented on the positive aspects of the experiential learning and reflected on their desire to replicate, in some way, the experiences for their own students. While they felt the on-site instruction was most valuable, they also recognized their own inability to take their students on such extensive field trips due to time and budgetary constraints. They maintained, however, that they would do what they could via videos, photos, etc. to virtually take their students on “visits” in order to bring the material to life for them as well.


Impact on Instruction

Participant 4 summed up the impact of the PD as developing his own knowledge base by exposing the complexity of energy sustainability, reconsidering some of his previously held beliefs about energy production, developing a healthy skepticism, and considering his classroom teaching.


I have to assume that what my students may know about a particular topic will not be coming from a personal encounter, but from something they saw on TV, in a movie, or an advertisement. The students I teach will be somewhat like me in that they will accept certain things as true because they hear it all the time. They have not taken the time to research these things on their own, and until they begin that process, they will not fully understand these topics. … I tell my students not to take what they hear at face value, but to check out the claims they are hearing, and this [PD] year has shown me that I have not been subscribing to my own teaching. It is my plan to provide an opportunity for students to challenge what they hear in class or in the world in general.

(Participant 4)


Participant 4’s ultimate goal of creating a society of informed decision-makers reflects the overarching intention of the PD. This finding could be the most important as teachers, who recognize the folly of accepting as fact politically-charged or one-sided stances on environmental issues, can modify their teaching to encourage their students to avoid making such mistakes.



Sustainability of energy production is a complex issue, and the politicization of environmentalism over the last several decades has resulted in public perceptions of energy, which are often simple and one-sided. The present paper describes a professional development program, which utilized experiential learning in conjunction with mathematical modeling to expose inservice science teachers to multiple considerations about the sustainability of distinct energy sources. The overall intention of the PD was to increase the participants’ awareness of the complexity of energy sustainability. Participants engaged in a combination of experiences including onsite field trips, expert lectures, documentary films, podcasts, and print media. Mathematical modeling was used as a vehicle to allow participants to examine these experiences and identify the variables, which must be considered when determining the sustainability of each energy type. Via this pedagogical approach, participants’ individual understanding of energy production methods and their environmental costs was improved. The participants attributed their conceptual change to the experiential nature of the instruction, in particular the firsthand observations made possible through field trips.

Most importantly, perhaps, the participants’ conceptions of environmental and sustainability education developed as well; many reported the desire to use the same learning approach in their own classrooms to foster their students understanding of sustainability. If future PD experiences can further inform teachers about the complexity of sustainability issues, then teachers can take steps to include on-site (or virtual) instruction, presentation of multiple perspectives, and critical analysis of any sustainability issues. Clearly, the nature of the PD resonated with the teachers and encouraged them to improve their teaching practice: always a secondary goal of teacher professional development.

This PD exposed another important consideration or PD providers who are planning teacher education experiences for teachers. While sustainability tends to bring to mind issues related to the environment, economics, and society are also greatly involved and need to be given due attention. In future PDs related to energy and sustainability, more emphasis will be placed on guiding the participants to consider stakeholders who are advocating from these positions as well. While the participants of this PD left without clear answers as to which form of energy was the most environmentally friendly or most sustainable, they did leave with the understanding that the answer to such questions are not simple or easily achieved. This, in itself, accomplishes the first step to educating these science teachers to teach for sustainability.



The professional development described in this paper was funded through the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board/Teacher Quality Enhancement grants program.



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