A systems approach to energy education

The U.S. Department of Energy identifies and focuses on seven essential principles and a set of fundamental concepts to support a systems approach to both formal and informal energy education.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, energy is an interdisciplinary topic that should be viewed across disciplines through a systems-based approach. In a document, Energy Literacy: Essential Principles and Fundamental Concepts for Energy Education, the U.S. Department of Energy identifies and focuses on seven essential principles and a set of Fundamental Concepts to support each principle. These principles and concepts were drawn from existing education standards and benchmarks and offer a framework for both formal and informal energy education.

In order to be energy literate, the USDE states that consumers must:

  • Be able to trace energy flows and think in terms of energy systems
  • Know where energy comes from, and how much energy they use
  • Be able to access the credibility of energy information they discover and explore
  • Be able to meaningfully communicate about energy
  • Be able to make informed energy and energy use decisions based on impacts and consequences
  • Continuously learn about energy throughout their lifetime (U.S. Department of Energy, 2013).

Science educators with Michigan State University Extension, as well as their colleagues from the U.S. Department of Energy, believe that energy literacy is important to each of us as it will:

  • Lead to more informed decision making
  • Improve the security of our nation
  • Promote economic development
  • Lead to sustainable energy use
  • Reduce environmental risks and negative impacts
  • Help individuals and organizations save money

Further, a basic understanding of energy, energy sources, generation, use, and conservation strategies, allows people to make informed decisions on topics ranging from smart home energy use, to national and international energy policy. The need for informed energy education is highlighted through current national and global issues such as fossil fuel supply and climate change.

Just like with other scientific disciplines, it is normal for scientists to differ with one another about the interpretation of evidence being considered, especially in areas, like energy, where active research is being pursued. In the best case scenario, scientists agree on findings from research. However, in many cases different scientists draw different conclusions from the same data. Ideally, in this case, scientists then work together to acknowledge and work towards finding evidence that will resolve their disagreements. It is in this way that scientists form self-correcting networks that allow them to understand the social and natural universe.

For the past few years members of the MSU Extension science team have been using scientific inquiry to evaluate the theories, research, and explanations posed by other scientists. This exploration involves examining the evidence, identifying faulty reasoning, pointing out information that doesn’t appear to mesh with the evidence, suggesting alternative explanations for the same observations, and going back to the drawing board to improve on findings. Although scientist may disagree about explanations of phenomena, most do agree about a couple of things:

  • It’s alright to make mistakes
  • Questioning, response to criticism, and open communication are integral to the process of science

It is in this way that most major disagreements are eventually resolved as knowledge and interactions evolve. In the realm of human energy usage, global access to energy resources has occurred at very disparate rates. As recently as 2011, there were 1.3 billion people on earth with no access to electricity.

Scientists predict a future scarcity in essential resources such as food, water, and energy. Being an informed consumer about energy efficiency, the energy used to grow, process package and transport food, or to treat water supplies and wastewater will be increasingly important.

The seven essential principles set forth by the U.S. Department of Energy, help to outline an understanding of the informed decision making that should be part of U.S. energy policy in light of expected shortages.

Additional information regarding Michigan 4-H Science can be accessed online at http://4h.msue.msu.edu/4h/science_technology. For more information on getting involved as a youth or volunteer, contact your county MSU Extension office .

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