High school teachers participating in a teacher workshop at the McCall Outdoor Science School. Photo courtesy of MOSS.
High school teachers participating in a teacher workshop at the McCall Outdoor Science School. Photo courtesy of MOSS.

The USDA-NIFA, through NARA, supports programs to educate K-12 students and increase their level of bioenergy literacy. Curriculum units have been developed for middle and high school students that explore alternative energy development and use. The Imagine Tomorrow competition provides high school students opportunities to develop and showcase biofuel projects. Classes at the University of Idaho’s McCall Outdoor Science School (MOSS), a NARA affiliate, connect K-12 students to bioenergy concepts and projects.

Elevating the level of bioenergy literacy through programs that interact directly with K-12 students is only one part of NARA’s education strategy. Another way to promote bioenergy literacy to K-12 students is to provide learning opportunities for K-12 educators so that they have the tools and knowledge to include bioenergy instruction in their classrooms.

Members affiliated with NARA’s Education team recently published a journal article that describes two different formats used to help K-12 teachers build bioenergy literacy. The article was published in the Journal of Sustainability Education.

View Teacher Professional Development for Energy Literacy: A Comparison of Two Approaches here.

Webinar format

One format used a series of monthly webinars to instruct high school teachers. The twenty-six teachers who participated in these webinars coached student teams for the Imagine Tomorrow competition and were located within the four-state NARA region (ID, WA, MT, OR). The goals driving this approach were to increase the quality of the Imagine Tomorrow experience and projects and to provide an opportunity for scientists, most were NARA researchers, to share their research directly with teachers.

The questions guiding the webinar series included:

  • What resources exist for teaching bioenergy resources?
  • What is the NARA project doing to advance bioenergy in the Pacific Northwest?
  • How can these ideas contribute to my students’ projects for the Imagine Tomorrow competition?

The breadth of subjects covered included an overview of the NARA project, bioenergy-based teaching tools, biofuel supply chains, lignin co-product development, and air emission impacts. Each researcher presented for 20-30 minutes with a similar amount of time provided for teacher questions.

Face-to-face format

The other format delivered an onsite workshop that spanned four consecutive days and was conducted at the McCall Outdoor Summer School campus in McCall ID. Seventeen teachers attended the workshop while an additional twenty teachers participated online through a “blog” format that generated a total of 15 updates.

The workshop topics explored the technology and sustainability issues associated with using forest residuals to produce biojet fuel and co-products.

The overarching questions guiding this workshop included:

  • Is this a good idea?
  • How do we know?

As with the webinar format, multiple NARA researchers provided presentations. Unlike the webinar, however, those who physically attended the workshop took part in multiple hands-on learning activities that could be duplicated with their students. The hands-on activities included measuring the amount of biomass available from slash piles and simulations that helped describe the conversion processes used to generate chemical products from wood residuals. In addition, the teachers assumed the role of varied stakeholders to discuss the projected benefits and concerns resulting from a wood residual to biojet and co-product industry.

Assessing each format

A series of interviews and surveys were conducted with teacher participants and presenters to evaluate the effectiveness of each format. Initial feedback indicates that the webinar approach attracted a broader geographic participation and allowed teachers to better connect the lessons directly to the Imagine Tomorrow student projects and to their local communities.

The face-to-face approach allowed more in-depth exploration of subjects and provided hands-on exercises for teachers to take back to their classrooms. The direct interaction between presenter and teacher was mutually beneficial for both parties. In addition, the intimate nature of the workshop allowed the workshop facilitators and instructors to understand the particular needs and goals of the teacher participants. The NARA education team plans to present a follow-up paper that describes the classroom outcomes resulting from teacher participation later this year.

Both approaches provided timely research information and inquiry-based lessons that could transfer to the classrooms. They both delivered concepts connected to the Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards.

Due to the NARA project’s broad mandate to investigate a range of subjects relating to the technical, environmental, social, economic, and educational aspects connected to an emerging wood-based biofuel and co-product industry, the NARA project functioned as an good case-study to use for a cross-interdisciplinary approach to enhancing bioenergy literacy. The NARA website provided useful content for these workshops in the form of relevant primary and secondary literature, newsletters, videos, and knowledge databases and educational resources.