CLEAN > Teaching Climate Literacy > Energy Awareness
Tail lights
Many types of energy fuel daily life in the United States.

The Principle for Teaching Energy Awareness:
Being aware of the role of energy in the Earth system and human society allows us to take actions to conserve, prepare, and make informed energy choices.

Jump down to: Teaching with this principle | Find activities

Teaching energy awareness can be supported by six concepts:

a. Energy drives the Earth system.

b. The primary sources of energy used by society are non-renewable stores sources, such as fossil fuels and nuclear, and renewable sources, such as solar, wind, hydro and biomass.

c. Humans' use of energy has consequences on the environment that sustains them.

d. The distribution of stored non-renewable and renewable energy sources varies around the planet, resulting in distribution and transmission costs.

e. There are significant social, political, and equity issues associated with the human use of and access to energy.

f. Developing a sustainable energy supply that minimizes impacts on the environment will require informed decision-making, technological and societal innovation, and improved efficiency.

What does this principle mean?

The energy awareness principles set out a broad framework from which to teach about energy topics. Energy is an inherent driving force throughout the universe and the Earth system. Humans use energy from various sources, and there are environmental, political, and social consequences related to our use of energy. Sustainable energy use can only occur when there is a balance between the amount of energy available and the rate at which it is consumed.

Solar panels
Why are these topics important?

A modern society cannot exist without a safe and readily-available supply of energy, so the importance of these topics is easily grasped by most students. Energy issues come up in many contexts such as:

What makes this principle challenging to teach?

Energy is a vast topic, spanning many disciplines. Perhaps the greatest challenge is where to fit energy awareness into the curriculum, because few courses outside of physics are directly about energy. Moreover, topics relating to energy consumption can be saddled with political connotations, misconceptions, and personal bias. However, each of these challenges can be overcome by integrating selected energy topics into relevant areas within existing courses and presenting the material with an appreciation that we all rely on energy to carry on our lives.

AAAS Benchmarks for Science Literacy

The AAAS Project 2061 Benchmarks for Science Literacy illustrate connections between concepts as well as how concepts build upon one another across grade levels.

See CLEAN activities that fall within the energy sources and use benchmark.

Explore concept maps for this principle:

Middle school
High school

Learn more about CLEAN climate and energy concept maps

How can I use this principle in my teaching?

Even though energy is unlikely to be a stand-alone topic within the curriculum, it can be effectively taught within many other topics.

thermostat Integrating Solutions

It is easy to create discomfort among students when presenting concepts such as peak oil, coal mining disasters or nuclear waste. Yet energy topics offer many promising solutions such as energy conservation, efficiency improvements, and emerging technologies for renewable energy sources. Projects on a personal scale allow for students to seek their own solutions and realize that conservation and efficiency are powerful strategies. Case studies of international energy use can add a needed perspective that a robust society need not be a wasteful one.

It is important to keep scale in mind, however, and to dispel the misconception that simply installing compact fluorescent light bulbs will solve our energy problems, or that there is one "silver bullet" technological solution that will address all of our energy concerns. Energy topics can effectively be taught with a quantitative approach, and the type of quantitative analysis used can be varied to match the grade level of the audience.

Middle school students can perform simple energy inventories of the amounts of energy used by various tasks, such as with the Home Energy Quiz. This concept can be extended to include potential energy savings, and the multiplier effect if every American 7th grader performed the same energy saving activity.

In high school, students can investigate the nature of energy supplies and the differences between fossil and alternative fuels. What sources of energy are used to generate the electricity used in students' homes and community? How are their homes heated? What forms of transportation do they use? High school students can also investigate the scale of their energy use to determine the most valuable places to save energy. See the Power Source and The Lifestyle Project activities for examples.

In the introductory undergraduate curriculum, students can consider patterns of global energy use. Which nations use the most energy? It is useful to look at total energy consumption as well as per capita consumption and consider the implications of each type of measurement. (For example, try the Energy Consumption Rates Across the World activity.) Another avenue for college students is to study various types of energy. There is no form of energy that is free from environmental and social consequences, and comparisons between different types of energy are sure to raise many interesting questions.

Upper-level college students can consider the location of national and global energy resources, as is demonstrated in the project, Evaluating the Effects of Local Energy Resource Development. Energy is unequally distributed across the globe, which has economic, environmental and political implications. Energy topics can be used to integrate subject areas such as geology, hydrology, economics, political science and environmental studies.

Find Teaching Activities

See all activities for teaching energy awareness

Search for activities by grade level:

Find middle school activities for this principle

Find high school activities for this principle

Find lower-level college activities for this principle

Find upper-level college activities for this principle


Join your colleagues in discussing how to teach with the Climate Literacy Principles.


National Academy of Sciences - What You Need to Know About Energy - An interactive guide containing many useful energy facts

US Energy Information Administration - EIA Energy Kids - Easy-to-digest energy data (not just for kids)

US Energy Information Administration - EIA Statistics and Analysis - A wealth of in-depth data about energy production, use, prices and trends.

BP Statistical Review of World Energy - Find statistics about production, consumption prices and reserves of oil, natural gas, and coal, along with data for hydroelectricity, nuclear power, renewable energy and more. This website also includes an interactive energy charting tool.

Teaching About Energy in Geoscience Courses - From On the Cutting Edge, this website is devoted to innovative ways to teach energy topics.

Teaching About Energy - written by John Roeder, published by the American Association of Physics Teachers
This manual contains background references and activities to help teachers and students with the many concepts involved in understanding Energy. Sample student activities from the full print manual are available here. The complete manual includes sections on basic concepts in energy different forms and conversion of energy and the social problems involved with energy. Appendices for teachers include help with labs an energy concept inventory and information on student learning of the topic.

Renewable Energy - This website contains summaries of various forms of renewable energy and is presented in a format that is readily readable by high school students.