Energy Crises in Pennsylvania and Beyond

Carmen Vanderhoof, Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education, Penn State

Carmen Vanderhoof is a doctoral candidate in Science Education at Penn State. Her research employs multimodal discourse analysis of elementary students engaged in a collaborative engineering design challenge in order to examine students’ decision-making practices. Prior to resuming graduate studies, she was a secondary science teacher and conducted molecular biology research. 


  1. Subject(s): Earth Science, Chemistry, Physics, Social Studies, Technology and Engineering
  2. Topic: Energy and Sustainability
  3. Grade/Level: 9-12 (can be adapted to grades 6-8)
  4. Objectives: Students will be able to describe Pennsylvania’s energy usage over time using concrete historical examples. Students will engage in systems and design thinking in order to come up with feasible sustainability solutions. Students will draw connections between local and global energy usage over time in order to situate their community’s sustainability efforts and come up with workable solutions.
  5. Suggested Time Allotment: 5-6 hours, but actual time will vary (extra time needed for extension)


This lesson is derived from Dr. Richard Alley’s sustainability presentation for the Center for Global Studies.

Dr. Richard Alley is a glaciologist and an Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at Penn State. He is also the author of the book Earth: The Operators’ Manual, 2011. Excerpts from his book are featured in this lesson, with permission. Additional background for this lesson can be found in the companion videos previously aired on PBS –  Earth: The Operators’ Manual mini-series, narrated by Dr. Richard Alley. There are many resources on the website in addition to the videos, including an annotated script and frequently asked questions. The videos are also available on YouTube.    

The intent of this unit is to connect sustainability solutions and systems thinking with local geography and history. The scope of the unit will expand to country wide patterns, contrasting the local state with states that have different physical features and energy use patterns. Extending even further, students will make connections and contrasts with energy usage patterns in other countries. Global sustainability efforts vary, as each country develops and implements different approaches. Through this unit, students will be encouraged to discover that learning from our past is just as important as learning from each other.

Pennsylvania has a very rich and well-documented history of energy use. There have been cyclical patterns of energy crises – people have used one resource until it became increasingly scarce, driving up the demand and price, and then switched over to a new resource with a lower initial price. There have been various environmental impacts, such as deforestation due to logging. There are lessons to be learned from each energy crisis cycle. One thing has been constant – the human need for energy has increased dramatically over time and continues to do so unless usage patterns change. The growing global human population also adds to the increasing energy demands. Eventually we will run out of finite resources such as fossil fuels. In addition, burning fossil fuels releases extra CO2 in the air, which contributes to global warming. Change is not only necessary; it is inevitable.

Students will be encouraged to think like engineers to come up with possible solutions to our energy problem, such as finding ways to reduce energy use through higher efficiency systems and switching to renewable energy sources (solar, wind, geothermal). If research efforts are invested in improving renewable energy technology, energy storage, and energy transfer, everyone, including the environment and the economy, will benefit.


Learning Context and Connecting to State Standards

This interdisciplinary unit can be used in an earth science and environmental science class or adapted to chemistry, physics, technology and engineering or social studies.

For earth science, students can analyze the local availability and extraction of energy resources, differentiate between Earth’s internal and external energy sources, consider and evaluate the impact of renewable vs. nonrenewable energy use, explain the difference between climate and weather, explore energy cycles and transfer of energy, and describe the factors associated with global climate change. Pennsylvania Academic Standards for earth and space science (secondary): 3.3.12.A1, 3.3.12.A2, 3.3.10.A4, 3.3.12.A4, 3.3.12.A6, 3.3.10.A7.    

For environmental science, students can link consumer demands to the use of natural resources and efforts towards sustainability; describe the role of technology in extracting, processing, transporting, and using natural resources; evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of using different types of energy resources; explain the relationship between energy consumption and sustainability; compare the energy distribution and usage patterns across countries; analyze the costs and benefits of pollution control measures; and consider how technology can reduce environmental impacts. Pennsylvania Academic Standards for Environment and Ecology (secondary): 4.3.10.A, 4.3.12.A., 4.3.10.B, 4.3.12.B, 4.5.12.A, 4.5.12.C.          

For chemistry and physics, students can explore combustion, endothermic vs. exothermic processes, heat, energy transfer and flow through systems, and conservation of energy Pennsylvania Academic Standards for Physical Sciences (secondary): 3.2.12.B2, 3.2.10.B3, 3.2.C.B3, 3.2.P.B5, 3.2.10.B6.     

For technology and engineering, students can trace the development of technologies for harvesting energy, analyze energy usage trends, compare and contrast technologies associated with different resources, and make connections to pollution and conservation issues. Pennsylvania Academic Standards for Technology and Engineering Education (secondary): 3.4.10.A.1, 3.4.10.D.3, 3.4.12.E2, 3.4.12.E3.  

For social studies, students can focus on the history of energy industries (ex. the rise and fall of the steel industry), technology development and innovations (ex. power plants), and labor relations, including industrial unions. Pennsylvania Academic Standards for History (secondary): 8.2.12.C, 8.3.12.D. In addition, students can describe changes in physical features across the state due to logging, mining, and other processes. They can also analyze people’s impacts on physical systems and describe efforts towards sustainability and managing environmental issues. Pennsylvania Academic Standards for Geography (secondary): 7.1.12.A, 7.3.12.D, 7.4.12.B.

New Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Connections

Sustainability, management of natural resources, development of technology, and engineering solutions to reduce pollution and waste are concepts directly addressed in the NGSS. 
Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI): HS-ESS2-4, HS-ESS2-6, HS-ESS3-5, HS-ESS3-6, HS-PS3-1, HS-PS3-2, HS-ESS3-1, HS-ESS3-2, HS-ETS1-1, HS-ETS1-1, HS-ESS3-3, HS-ESS3-4.     

Corresponding PowerPoint

Lesson 1: Overview of energy use in Pennsylvania

  • Probe for prior knowledge:
    • What is energy and what does it mean to use energy?
      (Answers will vary depending on the context; some students may differentiate between different types of energy and others may give a general definition – the ability to do work)
    • What types of energy do we use today?
      (Sample answers: fossil fuels, wind, solar, etc.)
    • What types of energy did people use in the past?
      (Sample answers: wood, hydroelectric, etc.) 
  • Show the History of Pennsylvania Energy through the 20th Century 3.5min PBS video  

    Note: if teaching in a different state you can adjust this lesson to focus on your state’s energy use history

    • Discuss the types of energy resources featured in the video
    • Elicit students’ personal connections with any places mentioned in the video
    • Ask students if they know any towns with the name “furnace” or “forge”
  • Full list of town names

Historical furnace in State College near the intersection of College Ave and Porter Road.
For more information check out The Centre County Historical Society

Old Furnace

Lesson 2: Research energy crises in Pennsylvania

  • Ask students to find data about energy use in Pennsylvania over time and to pay careful attention to cycles of energy crises – when one resource starts to run out and a switch is made to another energy source
  • Provide students with Pennsylvania maps so they can label which towns were associated with logging, mining, etc.
  • Ask students to create a graphical representation of the energy crises findings – a table, a flow chart, a concept map, a cartoon, etc.

Lesson 3: Problem-solving discussion

  • In small groups (4-5 students), prompt students to discuss their energy crises representations, define the problem(s), and brainstorm possible solutions (This relates to the beginning steps of the Engineering Design Process. There are a few versions of this process with slightly different steps but the main idea is that it’s an iterative cycle that starts with a question or a problem. For more information check out The American Society for Engineering Education – ASEE.)
    • Assign roles:
      • note taker – to make sure big ideas are written down
      • discussion moderator – to make sure everyone has an equal chance to participate
      • time keeper – to make sure that the group has enough time to complete the problem solving task
      • fact-checker – to make sure students pull reliable evidence from their research
    • Encourage students to think about how people in Pennsylvania can deal with increased energy demands and the finite nature of fossil fuels
  • Whole-group sharing
    • Collect group ideas (use large poster board, white boards, etc.) and display in the classroom
    • Ask students to reflect on their research and small group discussion
    • Have students start to think about potential differences between Pennsylvania’s energy usage and a different state (get students to think about states with different physical features)

Lesson 4: Extension – Comparing energy use patterns  

  • With another state or multiple states
    • Comparison with Texas
      (can present different example(s) depending on students’ interests and experiences) – use 44:20 – 50:46 min clip from Earth: The Operators’ Manual
      • Guiding questions:
        • How did wind turbines change the local economy in Nolan county? (Sample answer: helps ranchers with “mailbox money”)
        • What changes did the city of Houston implement to increase energy efficiency?
          (Sample answers: more plug-in hybrid cars and energy efficient LEED certified buildings)
      • Discuss the similarities and differences between the two states’ energy use.    
  • Comparisons between countries
    • Comparison with China
      (can present a different example here, especially if you have students who have lived in a different country; bring in their experience when possible) – show 33:00 – 36:41 min clip from Earth: The Operators’ Manual (there are other countries discussed in this video – Spain 38:00 – 38:42 min, Brazil 39:22-42:18 min)
      • Guiding questions:
        • What has lead China to change its energy harvesting infrastructure and invest in sustainability research?
          (Sample answers: large growing population, visible pollution, need for new skyscrapers and mass transit systems)
        • What are some ways China is reducing its energy use and making changes towards sustainability?
          (Sample answers: large scale manufacturing and use of solar panels, LED street lighting, electric cars, building more efficient coal power plants and shutting down the old ones, CO2 capture and sequestration research)
      • Discuss similarities and differences between the United States and China – focus on energy demands, use, and harvesting processes and efforts towards reducing pollution and sustainability.
      • Consider what we can learn from China.   
    • Jigsaw activity – if time permits allow students to research patterns of energy use and efforts towards sustainability in China and other countries; students can work in table groups to research a different country and share and compare their findings
    • Reflection – instruct students to write about each country and draw comparisons or make a table with energy problems and sustainability efforts across countries 

Lesson 5: Extension – Connecting with global issues through case studies

Hong Kong Case Study

Wai is a high school girl who lives in a high-rise apartment on one of the 200 islands that comprise Hong Kong. She speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, and English and attends an international school. Her parents work in finance and have encouraged her to follow in their footsteps, but she wants to study marine biology. She has noticed how much hotter and humid it is in the city compared to her grandparents’ farm just hours away. The air pollution is sometimes visible as a gray haze takes over the muggy skyline. She has often heard her parents talk about the need for better ventilation and cleaner transportation options. Wai is concerned over the local coral reefs, which may be impacted by increasing temperatures and sea level rise. She wants to visit and eventually be part of a research team at the Mai Po Nature Reserve, a biodiverse wetland area of 1,500 hectares (or roughly 5.8 square miles). Now that Wei has an idea of what she wants to study, she needs to convince her parents. They have often talked about temperature and sea level rise and her parents think that it won’t be a problem in their lifetime; they are only concerned with reducing the air pollution in the city. Wei disagrees and wants to convince her parents that we need to take action sooner.

Can you help Wei construct a strong argument to convince her parents of the immediate impact of global temperature and sea level rise on the Hong Kong coastline? Write a letter to Wei’s parents from her point of view and explain to them how you feel about issues of sustainability and conservation of biodiversity. Tell them why it’s important for you to study conservation and marine biology.

If students want to read the articles that inspired the case study direct them to:         

NOTE: This extension is complementary to a case study lesson about the Amazon
(also from the Center for Global Studies)


  • Interactive maps
  • History of logging in PA and pictures
  • Energy use in PA within the last two decades (including PA’s efforts towards sustainability)
  • Statistics and rankings
  • List of energy resources and use pattern changes in the US
  • Dr. Richard Alley’s video Earth: The Operators’ Manual, 2011 version
  • Dr. Richard Alley’s book:
    Alley, R. B. (2011). Earth: The Operators’ Manual. New York: WW Norton & Company.

    The following select excerpts are available for use in the classroom with permission:

      • What is Energy, Anyway? (Pp. 16-17) – this section discusses matter, energy, conservation of mass, and stored energy  
      • The Great Pennsylvania Desert (pp. 24- 30) – this section is about: Juniata’s iron history and town names; Pittsburgh coal and Juniata Valley charcoal; deforestation statistics (ex. one furnace required clearing 300 to 400 acres/yr); Benjamin Franklin’s efficient stove; PA’s first Commissioner of Forestry Joseph Rothrock contributions; reforestation in PA due to other ways of generating energy and building materials
      • Peak Whale Oil (pp. 30- 36) – this section describes a history of burning trees, candles, camphene lamps, olive oil, whale oil; first modern oil well drilled in 1859 in Titusville, PA; growth in fossil fuels

Differentiated Instruction

  1. For visual Learners – use video, PA map, diagrams, representations, and drawings; write ideas on the board during the discussion and keep them up during the final write-up (or at least for the beginning stage of the writing process)
  2. For auditory Learners – small group and whole-group discussion
  3. For ESL Students – for the final write-up start with the drawing/diagram and then write about it; introduce vocabulary with pictures/diagrams; encourage students to bring in any personal experience relating to energy use if they are comfortable with sharing  
  4. For advanced Learners – use the extension – make comparisons of PA energy use with another state and then another country; research sustainability solutions in other countries and write a comparison; also consider encouraging students to develop expertise in a particular area of interest – ex. electric cars, solar power storage solutions, etc. 
  5. For learners that need more support – print out excerpts from articles and Dr. Richard Alley’s book (rather than having students search through many lists of websites); pinpoint/highlight the main ideas to help with the research; provide a graphical representation example; provide prepared notes (completed or with fill in the blanks); consider pre-teaching new terms/concepts that you anticipate will emerge out of students’ energy research (ex. CO2 capture and sequestration); in the extension comparison table assessment consider drawing a sample table on the board 


Students’ representations of the patterns of energy use over time serve as formative assessment or a check point to adjust the direction of the discussion. 

Sustainability solution write-up – ask students to pick one of the ideas (it does not have to be their own) presented in the whole-class discussion and develop it further. Have them start with a question or a problem that needs to be solved and then write a plan that outlines a solution to the problem/question. Encourage students to use diagrams or drawings to support their write-up. (Consider what criteria and limits to set for this plan – ex. set budget or unlimited resources, realistic solutions given today’s technology limits or solutions that go beyond present day technology)

Extension: comparison write-up or table – instruct students to write a paragraph about each country researched (ex. United States and China) and a comparison paragraph or construct a table with each country’s energy problems and solutions based on their research (or based on just the video if there are time constraints)

Extension: letter to Wei’s parents – instruct students to write a page long letter to Wei’s parents convincing them that a rise in temperature and sea level will affect the Hong Kong coastal area and that immediate action is necessary. Students may write what types of steps can be taken towards sustainability and conservation of biodiversity.


Alley, R. B. (2011). Earth: The Operators’ Manual. New York: WW Norton & Company.