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From Wood to Wing to Classroom

Using a real-world biofuels project as a K-12 teaching moment

Educators know the power of an authentic performance task, a task where students are asked to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding, and proficiency in a relevant, genuine context.[1]

For example, the culminating activity in Facing the Future’s middle and high school energy curricula, Fueling Our Future, is a stakeholder meeting. In this performance task, students are asked to use what they have learned about biofuels, sustainability, and communication to negotiate and to create a policy recommendation for a sustainable biofuel mix in the Pacific Northwest. In the coming months, the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) will be participating in a performance task of their own– the production of 1,000 gallons of bio-jet fuel made from wood and a demonstration flight with Alaska Airlines!

In 2011, NARA was awarded a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to research and develop a sustainable supply chain for aviation biofuel in the Pacific Northwest (USA). Since then, this alliance of universities, government labs, and private industry has been evaluating the feasibility and sustainability of using forest residuals, or slash from logging operations, as feedstock for bio-jet fuel and co-products. Not only will this 1,000 gallons of biofuel demonstrate 5 years of learning and research, it could also provide evidence for stakeholders around the world that the science and markets are ready with viable and regional alternatives to petroleum-based fuels.

To help prepare students and teachers around the PNW for this emerging field of bioenergy, the NARA education team has been working to promote (bio)energy literacy through the development of educational resources and programs. These resources and programs have been developed for and tested by many different audiences including students at the K-12, undergraduate, and graduate levels and for different environments such as formal education, outdoor education, undergraduate research experiences, and high-school problem solving competitions. Facing the Future, a member of the NARA Education team, developed the elementary, middle, and high school units Fueling Our Future: Exploring Sustainable Energy Use, and facilitates energy-related teacher workshops around the Pacific Northwest. Facing the Future’s interdisciplinary approach—using global issues and sustainability as a context for learning—provides an authentic opportunity for students and teachers engage in an exploration of this interdisciplinary, real-world biofuels project.

As scientists, researchers, and industry work together over the next few months to complete their performance task – the production of 1,000 gallons of bio-jet fuel, you might consider using this as a teaching moment for your students.

The following resources and events could provide you with some fodder for an authentic performance task with your own students around energy, sustainability, or community development.

Follow the story of the 1,000 gallons of bio-jet fuel produced by the NARA team on this interactive, multimedia timeline.

Join educators, scientists, research professionals, and industry leaders at the 2nd NW Wood-based Biofuels + Co-Products Conference on May 3-4th.

Bring a team of high school students to or sign up to judge at this annual high school problem-solving competition held at Washington State University May 20-22nd.

Try out a free elementary or middle/high school lesson from Facing the Future’s energy curriculum.

Find teaching materials related to biofuel solutions in this collection of educational resources. All resources are aligned to the energy principles and concepts as outlined in the Department of Energy's peer reviewed Energy Literacy: Essential Principles and Fundamental Concepts for Energy Education framework.

  • Teacher Workshop: Fueling Our Future

Facing the Future will partner with the Snohomish County PUD again this June to offer teachers from Snohomish County schools a day-long workshop using Fueling Our Future. Contact Danica.Hendrickson@wwu.edu for more details.

This work, as part of the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA), was supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2011-68005-30416 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

[1] Jay McTighe, “What is a Performance Task? (Part 1),” PerformanceTask.com, http://blog.performancetask.com/what-is-a-performance-task/.  

Photo courtesy of University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources McCall Outdoor Science School (MOSS).

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