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Energy Production Is Powered by More Than Just Physics

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Energy Production Is Powered by More Than Just Physics

Particle Blast Energy Concept

Researchers have highlighted the importance of contextualizing physics education to reflect real-world energy issues. In a recent paper, they discuss how educators are incorporating case studies on power plants to teach students about the broader impacts of energy decisions. Their work emphasizes the need for a holistic approach that considers scientific, ethical, ecological, and cultural factors, encouraging students to participate in informed community decision-making.

Reframing power in terms of social and cultural dynamics enables students to actively participate in their communities.

Large-scale energy generation endeavors are influenced equally by economic and political factors as they are by the availability of natural resources and raw materials. The output of power plants encompasses more than just electricity; it also results in diverse scientific, ethical, ecological, and cultural consequences. These impacts are felt at various levels, from local communities to regional areas, and extend up to state, national, and global dimensions.

Researchers from the University of Washington Bothell and Seattle Pacific University discussed the importance of contextualizing physics principles. In The Physics Teacher, a journal co-published by AIP Publishing and the American Association of Physics Teachers, they outlined how teachers implemented case studies to teach about energy and the realities of power plants.

Reexamining Education During the Pandemic

“During the pandemic, a lot of us had a reexamination of the education that we were offering, a chance to really look at why it is important and what its purpose is,” author Rachel Scherr said. “Ultimately, science education should be providing a basis for decision making, and we should be enabling students to participate in scientifically responsible decisions that affect their lives and their communities.”

Scherr and her collaborators share their latest updates on a multi-year project geared toward supporting physics educators in new forms of teaching about energy that connects students with the realities of physics beyond the classroom. Their study examined how a set of teachers applied this holistic approach to analyze the social and cultural impacts of Plant Scherer in Georgia. The authors also accounted for student experiences in a course investigating dams in the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, including research on relicensing, local resistance, salmon relocation engineering, and tribal restoration projects.

Emphasizing Equity and Community in Energy Decisions

“We’ve been supporting teachers for a few years now to really think about the equity issues related to power plants and the role of equity in community decision-making,” Scherr said. “Equity has to do with not just the power plant itself, but the relationship of the power plant to the lands and waters and air that surround it, as well as human, plant, and animal communities.”

Their work exemplifies that removing abstraction from physics education—and reconnecting power plants to the rest of the planet—prepares students to engage in community decision-making and understand energy in its many social and cultural contexts. 

“Technology, infrastructure, and energy resource decisions are partly scientific decisions, and classes that prepare young people to participate in decision-making is a shared value for scientists,” Scherr said.

“There is so much to be gained from placing these kinds of analyses in their context, where they have consequences for people and for the natural world. It’s a natural extension that helps to make the physics we learn meaningful.” 

Reference: “Energy in Its Material and Social Context: Power Plants” by Rachel E. Scherr, Lane Seeley and Kara E. Gray, 1 September 2023, The Physics Teacher.
DOI: 10.1119/5.0111211

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