If You Can't Stand The Heat...

The Smithsonian Science Education Center is proud to celebrate another successful year of sponsoring and hosting the 2014 Smithsonian Science Education  Academies for Teachers. Last week, the SSEC wrapped up Energy: Past, Present, Future--an academy dedicated to understanding the history of energy production, the current state of energy needs, and future technologies to enhance energy efficiency and conservation.

On average, Americans have the world's largest energy consumption while accounting for less than 5% of its population. Americans also account for a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. We rely heavily on fossil fuels (natural gas, oil, and coal) for more than 80% of our energy needs. With oil and natural gas reserves increasing by 30--40% in the past few decades, what used to be a crisis of energy sources is now an issue of fossil fuel misuse. 

The aftermath of this energy misuse is directly related to our current global climate change crisis, a fact that presenters throughout the week emphasized. Global climate change is now a relatively accepted concept across the global community, but what is scarier than growing caron dioxide levels is the rate at which these emissions continue to increase. We are now taxed with the responsibility of halting the current rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The grim situation has become increasingly prominent in the media as of late, which means the mentality of a nation is beginning to change. Programs focusing on environmental stewardship are moving toward increased public education and incentivization of best practices such as the three R's (reduce, reuse, recycle). Twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia, and two American territories already have renewable energy mandates that ought to encourage increasingestic energy reserves.

There is heightened global awareness that we must all come together to produce reasonable decreases in carbon emissions. In fact, there may be a time in the future when the global community "puts a price on carbon to nudge larger companies into cutting carbon emissions" as Dominion Power representatives said during our visit. Being one of the largest suppliers of energy to the metropolitan Washington, DC area, Dominion Power emphasized its diverse portfolio, one which includes coal, natural gas, biofuels, and renewable energy sources.

The week featured many speakers who elaborated on alternatives to fossil fuels.  Dr. Joyce Yang from the Department of Energy (DoE) emphasized cellulosic biofuels, while Dr. Benjamin Phillips, also from the DoE, spoke about tapping into geothermal energy sources. There are also a slew of new-age engineering techniques that can be used: ocean fertilization, cloud whitening, stratospheric sulfur aerosols, biochar burial, and tropical reforestation to name a few. All of these techniques come with costs and benefits, as was made clear when we visited the Marian Koshland Science Museum's interactive global climate change exhibit. The climate change mitigation simulator, in particular, took participants through the process of establishing a climate change solution by weighing the importance of the following four factors: cost savings, land preservation, oil independence, and air quality. 

This year's Energy: Past, Present, Future academy has been a whirlwind of material, lectures, and hands-on inquiry activities. The week, to me, emobides the multidisciplinary approach to teaching. We've been in museums, laboratories, and seminar halls. We've been learning about energy in a historical context, as well as discovering current research and future technologies that can be used to provide students with a well-rounded view of energy use and conservation in America. We asked the hard questions and came back with a simple answer: if you can't stand the heat, get out of the energy crisis.

About the Author

Cathy Wang
SSEC Professional Services Intern

Cathy graduated cum laude from Duke University in May 2014 with a Bachelors of Science in Biology (concentration in Neurobiology) and two minors in Chemistry and Psychology. She graduated with distinction for a research project studying the progression of glioblastoma in an oncogenomics lab. During her time at Duke, she became interested in the pedagogy behind STEM education In K-8 classrooms while volunteering at Durham Public Schools with the American Red Cross. Moving forward, she hopes to use her SSEC experience to inform a future career in academic medicine and the medical humanities.