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In the classroom, a lack of energy education

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Krista Lee, an honors earth science and biology teacher at Durham's Voyager School, lists recycling as a course requirement, even if the state curriculum doesn't. "It's amazing how little some of these kids know about it," Lee said. "Some students bring in plastic bags and Orbit gum boxes, wondering if they're recyclable."

Lee is at Station 5, where participants can speak with a teacher who has used a Power House, which allows students to learn about sustainable energy habits by simulating heating, cooling and insulation techniques on a miniature model home and greenhouse.

Along one wall, diagrams compare the economical, societal and environmental impacts of coal, natural gas, Uranium 235 and wind and solar energy. Outside, Station 2 has two household fans set up to generate wind for various wind turbine kits. Inside, Station 3 hosts a specialist on geothermal energy, ready to share his knowledge.

This is the Solar and Wind Energy Activities session of a workshop hosted by the UNC Institute for the Environment earlier this month. Middle and high school science teachers learned how to make energy issues come alive for students in the classroom.

That is more difficult than it seems. Teachers said they are frustrated at the state's outdated energy curriculum. Coverage of energy-related topics is "terrible," Lee said. "It's not really taught in any depth except at the AP Environmental Science level."

As a result, many students are barely aware of energy issues—the impacts of coal, nuclear and renewable sources, for example—much less educated on them.

"Overall, students have a basic terminology with energy but there's not a lot of exposure," said Cole Wilson, a physics and earth science teacher at rural Lee County High School. "It is still very foreign and not necessary to their life. We do touch on things like the negative aspects of coal, but without offering solutions."

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction did not respond to the Indy's request for comment by press time Tuesday.

There is little classroom time devoted to energy topics because of the rigidity of mandated coursework. "We are so stuck with teaching to a test," Allison Lewis, a Cumberland County ninth-grade earth science teacher said.

Indeed, when energy literacy is made relevant, students seem to react well. For example, when the Triangle experienced a severe drought in 2007, Lee's classes learned about water conservation. Students "ate it up, because that's what was going on now," she said.

This is part of the challenge: to help kids understand how what they learn in the classroom relates to their own lifestyle and energy usage—and how to minimize their carbon footprint.

"It's up to them to figure it out," Wilson said. That will start happening "when we bring it to them and show them there is a necessity to change, that it's not a tree-hugger lifestyle."

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